Movie Review: “The Secret Life of Pets”

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The voices are mostly bland, the animation detailed but generic and the gags are all variations of low-hanging-fruit in “The Secret Life of Pets,” a comedy built around what our non-speaking companions do when we leave them alone all day.

You’ve gotten a full dose of the jokes from the commercials and trailers — the fat cat raiding a fridge, a poodle banging his head to a little Death Metal, a parakeet breaking out of her cage to play video games and a dachshund scratching his back with a kitchen mixer.

That sequence is literally the opening of the movie, so hand it to Illumination, the folks who make the Minions movies for Universal. It takes guts to give away the first two minutes of your film, two minutes without a decent laugh in them, BTW. 

But behavior any pet owner will recognize — the cat who bares her fangs and takes a bite if you pick her up wrong, the puppy who pees with excitement every time you come home — makes this a tolerable 90 minutes for kids, if perhaps a little less than that for their parents.

Louis C.K. voices Max, a Jack Russell terrier whose Manhattan apartment world is upended when owner Katie shows up with a huge, new Wolfhound-looking mop she’s fetched from the Pound. Duke, colorlessly voiced by Eric Stonestreet of “Modern Family,” proceeds to impose himself on his new “brother.” The scheming and counter-scheming gets them both lost in the wilds of Manhattan, where the “flushed animal underground,” led by a deranged but adorable bunny (Kevin Hart) could be their salvation, or their doom.

The flushed critters — gators, pigs, snakes, etc. — live in the sewers plotting their revenge on humanity. And the “domesticated” are not their favorites, either.

Hart throws a lot of personality into the voice, which is good, because like the neutered Louis C.K. and others, there’s nothing funny in the script for him to say. “Long live the Revolution, suckers!” and such.

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A cute bit — the tour of the underworld of abandoned animals includes those staples of comic book ads, Sea Monkeys.

“Hey, it’s not OUR fault we don’t look like the ad!”

Another novel sequence, Max and Duke tumbling into every dog’s fantasy — a Brooklyn weiner-works and sausage factory.

Only the Pomerainian Gidget (Jenny Slate of “The Lorax” and “Obvious Child”) is hunting for Max, whom she crushes on. She enlists the falcon Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and later the aged, paralyzed Basset Hound, Pops, whom “Saturday Night Live” vet Dana Carvey gives his best geezer voice.

The rivers and sewers are almost photo realistic, the critters comical in that broad, Nickelodeon or vintage Looney Tunes way.

Speaking of Looney, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how violent this pre-tween farce is. Slapfights, brawls, violent death and near-death experiences abound. Along with butt-sniffing and toilet-sipping (at a party) gags.

“Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!”

“Finding Dory” may be giving Disney stockholders $20 bills to light their cigars with, but truth be told, all-star-voice-casts never ensure laughs, and branded goop like “Angry Birds” feels like filler in between Disney and/or Pixar outings.

Illumination slapped a four minute Minions short in front of “Secret Life of Pets,” just to ensure that there’d be a bare minimum number of laughs to make this worth 2D (don’t waste your money on 3D) admission prices. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s no real help, either.

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MPAA Rating:PG for action and some rude humor

Cast: The voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Dana Carvey, Lake Bell
Credits: Directed by Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney, script by Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:30.

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