Dear parents: It’s inevitable — you’re going to see “The Secret Life of Pets.” Your kids, who have likely already flipped for “Zootopia” and “Finding Dory,” will eat up this comedy about what dogs and cats do when their masters are away.They are going to love the cartoon antics, slapstick shenanigans and anthropomorphic tomfoolery. Sure, they may have just seen a giant octopus drive a truck in “Finding Dory,” but that won’t stop them from cackling with delight when a homicidal bunny causes a traffic pileup on the Brooklyn Bridge. They’ll be sold on it as soon as the pre-film short — featuring the Minions — starts.
As for you? Well, it could be a lot worse (that Minion short could be feature-length). “The Secret Life of Pets” isn’t revolutionary, but it’s entertaining and funny. I may have forgotten most of the specifics since screening it two weeks ago (truth be told, it was evaporating by the time I hit the lobby), but I remember laughing.
The film starts off with a great opening sequence, following the routine of several pets in a New York apartment after their masters leave for the day. A bird turns on the big-screen TV and imagines flying with jet planes. A wiener dog scratches his back with a blender. A gerbil gets lost in the building ducts. A poodle rocks out to death metal. A cat disdains all of the other animals and humans because, obviously, cats are the worst.
And then there’s Max (Louis C.K.), the terrier who lives alone with his master, Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max is so fond of his owner that his day’s big plans include just sitting by the door waiting for her to come back to sit on the fire escape with him. Their special bond is threatened, though, when Katie brings home the big, hairy oaf Duke (Eric Stonestreet). The two dogs don’t hit it off and, during a walk in Central Park, end up lost in the city. Now, far from home, they must evade dogcatchers as well as a gang of angry, abandoned animals who are eager to destroy any domesticated pets. They’re led by a fluffy, adorable and utterly deranged bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart). While Max and Duke try to make their way home, their pet friends, led by smitten puppy Chloe (Lake Bell), set out searching for them, aided by a vulture who might not be trustworthy (Albert Brooks, cheating on Pixar) and an ancient hound named Pops (Dana Carvey), for whom “every breath is a cliffhanger.”
That’s a lot to squeeze into 90 minutes, and “Pets” is definitely crowded and frantic. Its plot owes a heavy debt to “Toy Story” and its sequels, and it often feels like a Buzz and Woody adventure with more fur and less heart. Whereas Pixar mixes emotional sucker punches in with its laughs, directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud are perfectly happy to amp up the zaniness and trust that it will be enough to keep the audience engaged. To their credit, they’re usually right. Despite the chaos, “Pets” is easily the funniest of this year’s animated offerings, moving with enough zip to distract you from the feeling that you’ve seen this all before.Animated films have been using all-star casts for ages, but this might be the finest collection of funny people assembled for one cartoon, and their energy gives verve to yet another of tale of animals who act like like people. Louis CK takes the normally bland leading role and brings his observant, slightly above-it-all voice to it. Stonestreet makes Duke an energetic, wounded ball of fur with a backstory that’s slightly touching (although abandoned at an odd point). And the rest of the characters mainly pop up to be funny before ceding the spotlight to someone else. Hart — now apparently shifting his plans for cinematic domination to the animated realm — will likely be the biggest hit as the homicidal Snowball, and Brooks is funnier and has more to do in his brief time as Tiberius the vulture than he does returning as Marlin in “Finding Dory.” And just when the movie starts to lag, someone else pops up to goose the comedy a bit. Carvey, in particular, has a welcome return as Pops, and Hannibal Burress, Bobby Moynihan and Steve Coogan are all welcome additions.
The movie moves quickly and looks beautiful; its sun-drenched Manhattan is every bit as poppy and gorgeous as Zootopia was. There are big chases and big laughs, even as the film occasionally wanders off in directions that are a bit odd for a kids’ movie (a battle to the death with a snake had my son a bit apprehensive, even though it ends in a pretty solid punchline). And yet, there’s the sense that it never quite achieves more than to be a diversion. It’s a fun, silly 90 minutes, but when the lights come up it doesn’t stick around. Even its sweet ending, in which all the humans are overjoyed to see their pets, feels more obligatory than resonant.
But hey, that’s okay. Not everything needs to be a tear-jerker, and there are far worse criticisms about a film than “it’s just really funny.” My kid loved it and was already asking me to get him the Blu-Ray. Like a cute puppy, “The Secret Life of Pets” doesn’t have to do much more than make us smile, and it does that well enough.