Creature Feature 

‘The Secret Life of Pets’ ain’t exactly a dog of a film, but it’s not the cat’s meow, either

click to enlarge secret_life_of_pets.jpg

A bunch of comedians lend their voices to some cartoon characters and the results are moderately entertaining. Hey, it's not a ringing endorsement, but The Secret Life of Pets is good for a laugh or two, and the occasional wacked-out moment that qualifies it as a semi-original animated movie.

OK, still not a ringing endorsement.

Louis C.K. voices Max, a Jack Russell Terrier who loves his master Katie (Ellie Kemper of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) with that undying loyalty that makes our dogs so damn cool. Katie brings home a new brother for Max, a big brown shaggy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), and it creates some turmoil in the household.

This leads to that, with Max and Duke eventually winding up in the hands of Animal Control, and eventually fending for themselves in the sewers of Manhattan. It is there that they become enemies of the Flushed Pets, a group consisting of alligators, lizards, snakes and furry critters led by Snowball the Rabbit (Kevin Hart on a sound-booth tear).

The advertised premise for the film suggests the movie might be about what our pets do in the house when we leave home. That part of the film is out of the way fast in the movie's opening minutes. (They basically eat all of our food, have parties, and listen to punk rock.) The rest of the movie is the band of pets in Max's neighborhood trying to find him and Duke when they get lost.

Some of the sequences are borderline deranged. Max and Duke wind up in a sausage factory, where they gobble down hot dogs in an almost hallucinatory scene set to Grease's "We Go Together." This doesn't feel like the stuff of kid's movies; it's a sequence that seems as if the animators took a little LSD break, came back to their computers, and dreamt up some wild shit.

The same can be said for the sewer stuff, which actually might terrify kids under the age of 8, as well as perhaps some of the softer, sweeter adults in attendance. There's a snake down there that initiates new members of the Flushed Pets crew by biting or eating them, and that particular snake's fate has something akin to the one suffered by Bambi's mom.

Directors Yarrow Cheney (making his feature film directing debut) and Chris Renaud (all of the Despicable Me movies) practice a very frantic pacing style that becomes a bit of a headache at times. Much of the movie goes by at whiz-bang speed, although the action is fairly coherent.

The animators have come up with a fun vision of New York City, with apartment buildings squished into each other and a compressed Manhattan skyline. They manage to make the city look friendly and crazy at the same time, which is probably the way many of the city's residents would describe their mega-famous home.

One of the greater joys of the movie would be hearing Louis C.K. toning things down for PG-rated animated fare. It turns out he has a gift for playing a dog, and Max even looks a little like him. Being that he is such a passionate endorser of NYC, he fits right at home in a movie where that locale is the setting. And he's just sort of really cute playing a dog.

Conversely, Hart goes for something a little more evil with his bunny rabbit, giving the killer bunny from Monty Python and the Holy Grail a run for its money as to which is more sinister. With this, and his recent pairing with Dwayne Johnson in the sort-of-OK Central Intelligence, Kevin Hart is having himself a sort of, better than average, slightly better than fair-to-middling summer.

Where does The Secret Life of Pets rank in the list of animated movies released so far in 2016? Well below Zootopia, and somewhat short of Finding Dory, but still OK. No, you don't need to run out and see this one, but if it should play in front of your face somewhere in the future, there's a good chance you will enjoy substantial parts of it.

More by Bob Grimm


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