**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG (for action and some rude humor)
Released: July 8, 2016
Runtime: 90 minutes
Directors: Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud
Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan
Despite the title (though hardly a shock), The Secret Life of Pets isn’t too revelatory. Guess what: they act and talk like us when humans aren’t around.
In what could’ve easily been called Pets Story, this latest from Illumination Entertainment (of Despicable Me/Minions fame) takes the basic Toy Story formula, applies it to animals, and does less with it.
That’s not to say that The Secret Life of Pets is atrociously bad, or even problematic in any particular way. It’s just an uninspired softball – if also a vibrant, colorful, and hyper one – that’s for kids only, a slapdash adventure with so few singular ideas that even at ninety minutes it feels overlong.
Set in a warmly idealized version of New York City, The Secret Life of Pets follows the happy-go-lucky terrier Max (Louis C.K., a welcome addition to the animated voice world) as he’s burdened with a new house mate to spend his lonely days with, an oversized Chewbacca-like doggie mammoth Duke (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet).
Various misadventures bring them and their nearby pet neighbors into contact with the undomesticated animals of the NYC underworld. They’re led by Snowball (Kevin Hart, the movie’s highlight, elicits the most laughs), a cute but riled up white bunny with a revolutionary streak who’s hell bent on an animal uprising against the humans. (Anyone familiar with 2005’s Hoodwinked! will recognize similarities with its villain, Boingo.)
Between animals both house-trained and wild, there’s plenty of furry, feathered, and scaly creatures to go around (even an alligator!), and all basically fit their serviceable caricatures well. The voice ensemble is uniformly game, propping up rote material, each giving it their all (Dana Carvey puts his classic SNL “Back in my day…” old coot to good use as a crotchety two-legged/two-wheeled basset hound). Still, while the gags are basic and jokes more slapstick than witty, it remains at least an admirable attempt at being funny on its own terms as opposed to falling back on pop culture references for punchlines.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Illumination’s regular director Chris Renaud and his team are phoning it in (not like, say, the animated short Mower Minions that precedes this feature), but the care, detail, enthusiasm, and even wonder that’s poured into the visuals and performances is almost entirely absent in the actual storytelling. With a budget about half the average Pixar entry, it’s clear that investing time and effort to develop story and character is where Illumination cuts its corners.
But for giddy little rugrats who will always be primed for cute cartoon animals doing silly things, The Secret Life of Pets is like the perfect snack reward for being a good boy or girl.