A movie about what pets do during the day is a winning premise. Of course we want to know what those adorable creatures with whom we share our lives are up to, and so The Secret Life of Pets is here to explore those possibilities. Turns out their days are much more dramatic and crazier than ours, with all sorts of underworld pet societies and warring animal factions. There’s apparently a lot to keep secret in the lives of these pets.
The Secret Life of Pets comes from animation studio Illumination Entertainment — the home of those ubiquitous Minions, who remain inescapable, as there’s a short film featuring the industrious yellow creatures before the feature. Pets is helmed by directors Chris Renaud (Despicable Me) and Yarrow Cheney.
If you’ve ever really wanted to know what your pets think when a new one joins the flock, according to The Secret Life of Pets, it’s not anything good. The hero here is Manhattan mutt Max (Louis C.K.), blissfully in love with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). It’s a perfect partnership until she brings home shaggy stray Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and three becomes a crowd. Locked in a rivalry for top dog in Katie’s apartment, Max and Duke become separated from their pack during a walk and end up on a crazy adventure that takes them through the sewers, across the river to Brooklyn, and back again.
One of the more intriguing herds they encounter is the revolutionary group of “flushed pets,” those abandoned or otherwise disposed of creatures who have banded together against humankind. They are led by the adorable fluffy bunny despot Snowball, voiced hilariously by Kevin Hart, spouting street gangster rebellion rhetoric while flashing cute, huge rabbit eyes that will give you whiplash from the cognitive dissonance. If the execs at Universal and Illumination Entertainment are smart, Snowball will get his own spinoff.
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Another supporting character deserving of more time? The lovestruck ball of fluff that is the Pomeranian Gidget, voiced by Jenny Slate. When her crush Max goes missing, Gidget is on the case, enlisting the help of the other pets in the building: Mel the pug (Bobby Moynihan), Buddy the dachshund (Hannibal Buress), Chloe the cat (Lake Bell) and Tiberius the falcon (Albert Brooks). The feisty Gidget will not rest until Max gets home safe and taps into her tougher side, surprising herself and her pals.
The Secret Life of Pets is definitely cute, definitely funny and draws on the universal experience of pet ownership to draw out the “awww” in all of us. But the film butt-scoots by on its premise. There’s not much more going on, thematically or emotionally below the surface. We know the pets love their owners and vice versa, and there are some sweet moments that illustrate how a pet can be life buddy — just you and Spot against the world. There’s some pathos wrung from Max and Duke’s sibling rivalry that turns into an alliance under pressure, but there aren’t any particularly touching or original messages to dish out. It’s a fun summer flick for kids that parents will enjoy too, a worthy choice for any summer afternoon — if you’ve already seen Finding Dory.
Cast: ☆☆ 1/2
Voices: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey.
Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney.
Screenwriters: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 90 minutes. Rude humor. Playing at area theaters.