The Secret Life of Pets (2016) / Animation-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for action and some rude humor
Running Time: 90 min.

Cast (voices): Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Hannibal Burress, Bobby Moynihan, Dana Carvey, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie
Small role (voices): Laraine Newman, Tara Strong
Director: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Screenplay: Cinco Paul, Kevin Daurio, Brian Lynch

Review published July 12, 2016

Upon first glance, The Secret Life of Pets would seem like a take-off on Pixar's Toy Story series, using pets instead of toys to show the world of individual hobbies and collective adventures the characters would go in when their human owners are away. Sounds like a winning premise, even if familiar. Plus, we have cute animal caricatures all voiced by some very funny, top-flight comedians. This should be a slam-dunk for entertainment value by any measure, if the result is indeed an amusing look at what pets do around the house while the humans are away.  Too bad that's not at all what the movie concentrates on beyond the first fifteen minutes, in which the story devolves into the kind of animal misadventures we've seen before, only infused with lots of disheartening side characters perpetrating cruel acts upon each other.

Louis C.K. (Trumbo, American Hustle) is one of those A-list comedians, voicing Max, a loveable dog living a life of relative bliss in a New York City apartment as the sole pet of his owner, Katie (Kemper, Sex Tape). He gets all of the love and attention he needs, when she's home, but now finds himself having to compete when bleeding-heart Katie brings home a shelter pooch in the form of the big, dopey, shaggy-haired Duke (Stonestreet, The Loft), who steals that attention, as well as a good deal of the food and pet bed. Squabbles result on who is going to be 'alpha dog' before both find themselves having to ally when they end up out in the streets of the city without an easy means of returning home in one piece. Out to the rescue are a few of their pet animal friends, who've made it their mission to bring Max back, and they have to do it fast, as the mutts have made enemies with a psychopathic bunny rabbit named Snowball (Hart, Central Intelligence), the gang leader of a rag-tag group of vicious street rejects who hate pampered, domesticated pets and their human owners.

The screenplay is cobbled together by Illumination Entertainment scribes like Cinco Paul and Kevin Daurio, who scripted the Despicable Me series, as well and Minions' Brian Lynch, but with little of the sense of heartwarming spirit of the Despicable flicks, and too much of the rude, obnoxious, and mean-spirited elements of the Minions (not surprisingly, the theatrical release of The Secret Life of Pets features a Minions short).  Much of the comedy relies on the performances of the comic actors, with Kevin Hart doing what he does so often, yell his lines like an over-caffeinated maniac, and smaller players riffing on character beats they've honed from their stand-up acts, including Dana Carvey (Hotel Transylvania 2) essentially re-enacting his "Grumpy Old Man" bit from his "SNL" days.  The voice work is a highlight, but without good comedic material otherwise, the makers of the film rely mostly on frantic slapstick and vicious insults to provoke laughs from audiences who titter whenever they perceive anything physically or verbally caustic occurring on the screen.

The Secret Life of Pets starts well and ends well, with funny opening scenes that introduce us the various animal characters we will come to follow for the next 90 minutes, and a wrap-up that suggests that the symbiotic human/pet relationships are indeed something special in the lives of all involved.  Not surprising that most of the trailers and advertising material draws from these cute, clever and quirky scenes.  Alas, there is the 70 minutes of so of mediocrity that comes between, supplanting the strong points with too many standard ugly, ill-advised confrontations between loud and antagonistic animal bullies, who are often seeking to maim, murder or consume one another, and, specifically, hope to slaughter humans in the most gory and torturous ways possible. 

If Illumination Entertainment can't compete with Pixar in making lasting family films to entertain young and old with warmth, mirth and twinges of melancholy, they shouldn't so deliberately remind us by lifting the idea for their story from them.  If Pixar films are made by master chefs using the finest of ingredients, Illumination's films seem like chain-restaurant cooks tossing up cheap eats for those who don't expect much more than quick and easy consumption, hoping deafening background music and noise along with a colorful, distraction-filled ambience can make up for substandard fare.  The problem is that movie tickets cost the same price, no matter what the end result, which makes it hard to recommend The Secret Life of Pets over seeing Finding Dory for a second time while it is still in the theaters.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo