'The Secret Life of Pets': Film Review

A clever canine caper that could use a better leash.

Louis C.K., Kevin Hart and Eric Stonestreet lend their voices to this latest romp from the team behind 'Despicable Me' and 'Minions.'

Fetching up a new twist on the tried and tested talking-animal genre, The Secret Life of Pets explores what happens when we close the front door and leave our dogs, cats and canaries to their own devices. The answer, as any recent CG animation flick could tell you, is that our pets act a lot like us, with their own petty quibbles, indulgences, love affairs, music tastes and desire to do what they please at all times — although a dog is a dog and will still run after a stick if you toss one in its direction.

That’s at least half the story in this latest comic romp from director Chris Renaud and Illumination Entertainment — the team behind the ultra-successful Despicable Me and Minions movies — and it’s certainly the more enjoyable part of a film that starts off impressively but gradually tires itself out with a loud and loopy caper plot, taking a clever idea to mostly familiar places in the long run.

Funny in stretches but capable of making you feel like you’ve dropped MDMA and locked yourself inside Petco for several hours, this big-ticket Universal release should play like catnip for kids starting summer vacation, though it’s unlikely to dig up the massive $1 billion bone of this year’s other anthropomorphic blockbuster, Zootopia.

Set in a fever-dream version of modern-day Manhattan that’s part Vincent Minnelli, part Andreas Gursky, the story (by regular Renaud scribes Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul and Brian Lynch) focuses on a whiny little terrier, Max (Louis C.K.), whose pitch-perfect, apartment-bound lifestyle is upended when his owner comes home with a big floppy rescue named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and forces them to become housemates.

Unable to accept the fact that he’s not the only loved one in town, Max soon finds himself stranded alongside Duke in the Big Apple, where they’re pursued by dogcatchers and cross paths with an underground resistance known as the Flushed Pets, whose goal is to make all animals undomesticated for good. Their leader, Snowball (Kevin Hart), is the most psychotic furry little wabbit to ever chomp on a carrot, and when he finds out Max is not the stray he claims to be, he brings the ruckus down hard.

Renaud dishes out some decent gags during the opening reels, especially when introducing us to the other pets in Max’s building, including a lazy house cat (Lake Bell), an overzealous pug dog (Bobby Moynihan) and a fluffy Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) who has the hots for our hero. Much of the humor comes from the fact that these animals have extremely human characteristics while remaining adorable little critters, even if not all of them aim to please their caretakers in the way that Max always does.

But there are many more castmembers to come, including a kvetching hawk (Albert Brooks), a Cockney-accented alley cat (Steve Coogan) and a sly old Basset Hound (Dana Carvey) with the most bodacious bachelor pad in the city — to name some of several additional characters that wind up crowding the screen for the sake of a few short laughs.

Like the professional dogwalker who can’t exactly keep count of Max and his cohorts, it feels like the filmmakers are juggling too many chatty creatures at once, while trying to maintain a plot that tends to grow more outlandish as the story progresses. Occasionally all the fuss results in a memorable set-piece — such as a digression into a sausage factory that nods to both Grease and a Busby Berkley musical — but by the time the third act rolls around, the cacophony grows exhausting and the laughs become rarer, especially when all the action-movie antics take over.

On the technical side, there are some marvels here — especially Renaud’s vision of a vertically exuberant New York City, with skyscrapers stretching beyond the frame and fire escapes leading forever upwards into different apartments and different lives, as if we’re seeing everything from the viewpoint of a dog watching the world of humans from the ground. Likewise, all the details of the furry and feathered cast, including all of the fur itself, are impressively rendered by the Illumination team, who have created a lively and colorful palette that recalls Technicolor films of the 1950s.

The same goes for the score by Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game), which takes notes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and other classic Manhattan-set movies, offering up a playful accompaniment to what ultimately feels like a smart but overindulgent exercise in computer-generated puppy love. Or maybe that’s just a pet peeve.   

Distributor: Universal
Production companies: Illumination Entertainment, Illumination Mac Guff, Universal Pictures International
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan
Director: Chris Renaud
Co-director: Yarrow Cheney
Screenwriters: Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul, Brian Lynch
Producers: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy
Production and character designer: Eric Guillon
Editor: Ken Schretzmann
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Art director: Colin Stimpson
Computer graphics supervisor: Bruno Chauffard
Animation directors: Jonathan del Val, Julien Soret

Rated PG, 91 minutes