Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper

Rated PG for Action and Some Rude Humor

The life of a pet seems simultaneously perfect (who hasn't wanted to spend the entire day sleeping?) and depressing (it must be a very boring life when each day consists of eating and sleeping and a trip to the dog park if you're lucky).  The new film from Illumination Entertainment, who created the "Despicable Me" franchise, explores what pets really do when their owners are off at work or school.

The influence of "Toy Story" is hard to deny, but it's only similarity is at the basic concept level.  Unfortunately while "Toy Story" was fun and heartfelt, "The Secret Life of Pets" comes up short even on its own merits.  This is another animated movie where the concept and marketing appear to have been of more importance to the filmmakers than the writing and voice acting.  It looks great (New York City has never looked so good) and contains some moments of inspired comedy, but the lasting impression is that it's a rather mindless diversion.

Max (Louis C.K.) is the pampered pet of Katie (Kemper), a single woman living in New York City.  Like most dogs, Max worships his owner and is devastated when she leaves for work.  Fortunately, he has the other pets that live in his apartment building to socialize with, including Gidget (Slate), a little puff ball that has loved him from afar.  One day Katie brings home a big shaggy dog named Duke (Stonestreet).  Max is horrified, viewing the big lug as a usurper intruding on his turf.  Despite Duke's sincere attempts to become friends, Max tries to drive him away.  But Duke won't take the abuse lying down and while at the dog park, he tricks Max and both end up with their collars taken away by stray cats and on the run from animal control and a group of tossed away pets led by Snowball (Hart), a fluffy bunny who is as cute as he is psychotic.  It's up to Gidget and the rest of the apartment's pets to find them.

If that sounds complicated, it is.  Which brings me to my main criticism of this movie, and it's a common one these days: it's too busy.  The filmmakers spent so much time covering their marketing and merchandising bases that they didn't have time to write a compelling story with characters worth caring about.  Or perhaps they simply didn't care.  Regardless, it hurts the film.

"The Secret Life of Pets" is one of those movies where the secondary characters are more colorful and interesting than the main pair.  Max and Duke are supposed to be the everymen (or every-"dog" in this case), but they're flatly written and Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet bring little in the way of heart or humor to them.  Or chemistry.  These two don't "click."  The film would have been better served if the filmmakers had excised their scenes and those of Snowball and company (which is straight out of a bad sitcom, although I liked Hart) and concentrated on Gidget and her friends' search for Max and Duke.  The latter brings the film's energy and humor (and is responsible for the film's most explosive laugh, which involves YouTube).

Ultimately, "The Secret Life of Pets" is another animated movie that's intended to sell toys and create internet memes, make a killing at the box office and be forgotten.  As such, it's not painful, but not worth your time either.

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