Review: ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ Amuses, but Misses Opportunities – The New York Times


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First things first: “The Secret Life of Pets” is preceded by a short film starring the Minions, in which those irrepressible yellow gelcaps take up landscaping so they can purchase a blender. You may regard this extra little cartoon as a bonus or a tax, depending on your level of Minion tolerance. Mine reached its end around 90 seconds before the movie did. But in any case, Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures are determined to keep selling toys and Halloween costumes, and it’s pointless to protest the merchandising of manufactured cuteness.
Part of the Minions’ ostensibly universal charm lies in the fact that they speak no known language, but rather a chirpy, vaguely Spanish-inflected patois. “The Secret Life of Pets,” Illumination’s newest feature, relies on the more conventional sound of celebrity voices, mostly belonging to people who are professionally funny on television. Children may not be all that familiar with many of them, including Louis C. K., who plays the main character, a dog named Max. Louis C. K., on his television projects and in his stand-up, tends to work on the blue end of the spectrum, trafficking in melancholy as well as profanity. His presence here may be a gift to his own children, and to their college funds. It might also provide a measure of consolation to gloomy, sensitive middle-aged dads who need to sense a kindred soul on the other side of the screen.
Similarly, Hannibal Buress (a dachshund), Jenny Slate (a fuzzy white lap dog whose exact breed I could not identify) and Lake Bell (a cat) might be here not because kids will recognize them from “Broad City” or “Obvious Child” or “In a World” but because youngish parents might want to feel a little bit cool at the multiplex on a Saturday afternoon. No shame in that! Fans of “Modern Family” will be happy to hear Eric Stonestreet as a big furry dog. Fans of Kevin Hart who want more after “Central Intelligence” and “Ride Along 2” will enjoy his impersonation of an angry bunny. Albert Brooks is a grumpy raptor. That sentence was a pleasure to write.
There is also a guinea pig, some other birds, lizards and even a few human beings. But this is mostly a dog story, full of capers and complications arising from the arrival of Duke (the big shaggy one voiced by Mr. Stonestreet) into the household Max shares with Katie (Ellie Kemper), his millennial owner. There is rivalry and resentment and eventually friendship. “The Secret Life of Pets,” written by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch and directed by Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, is like one of those picture books about how to deal with a new baby, but with talking animals.
Giants, ghosts and Jason Bourne will be on the big screen this month.
Which is, all in all, pretty good fun. Talking-animal cartoons generally are, if they have even a modest quantity of wit or cross-species insight. And while this movie never achieves — and does not really aim for — the emotional richness or visual inventiveness of the better Pixar features, or the sly social consciousness of “Zootopia,” it has a playful absurdity and a winning, friendly spirit.
As the title suggests, the conceit is that when we humans are away, our furry, scaly, feathered companions get up to all kinds of mischief. They visit one another’s apartments, they dance and flirt and play loud music and then, when we return, pretend that they’ve been waiting for us the whole time. Except for the cats, of course, who make a great show of not caring.
Here I should say that, while Ms. Bell’s purring vocalizations are beyond reproach, the film is clearly the work of dog people, and traffics — like nearly every other movie in its genre — in some tired anti-feline stereotypes. I could go on about this, but I’m not supposed to let my political opinions affect my reviews. And I’m not biased. Dogs are fine. I have shared my home and opened my heart to a few of them. But they’re also just too easy, with their wet noses and broad pink tongues and eagerness to please. Cats are demanding. Complex. A more daring movie would have ventured beyond fat, pampered house cats and scrawny alley predators in its depiction of them. Representation matters.
Speaking of politics, the house pets encounter an underground militant organization led by Mr. Hart’s adorably fuzzy, implacable little rabbit. He steals the movie, of course, and helps it ascend to a level of anarchic delight. The animated action is bouncy and frenetic, and if the story becomes a little too busy, it moves quickly and makes room for a barrage of jokes and even some character development. Ms. Slate’s Gidget the lap dog evolves from a lovestruck princess (pining for Max) into a fierce and resourceful action heroine. Max himself grows less self-involved. Everyone gets home safely.
Like the “Despicable Me” movies, which put Illumination on the map (and spawned those furshlugginer Minions), “The Secret Life of Pets” is adequate animated entertainment, amusing while it lasts but not especially memorable except as a catalog of compromises and missed opportunities. Among those are the New York setting, a potential wonderland of glamour, filth and imagination that is rendered as blandly as if the movie had been shot on a back-lot set.
“The Secret Life of Pets” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Fewer poop jokes than you might expect. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes.


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