Terrier Max (voice of Louis C.K.) is in love - with his owner Katie (voice of Ellie Kemper). He's so focused on her he fails to see the possibilities of the sweet Pomeranian Gidget (voice of Jenny Slate) who lives on the same level in the Manhattan building across from him, instead spending his day staring at the door waiting for Katie's return from wherever it is she goes each day. When she returns with a new rescue, a big mutt named Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet), Max's jealous response begins a war that causes them to become separated from their dog walker and into the grips of insane bunny Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart) in "The Secret Life of Pets."
The latest from the "Despicable Me" team of director Chris Renaud, codirecting with that film's production designer Yarrow Cheney, is yet another example that Illumination Entertainment's well is beginning to dry up. Enjoyable in many aspects, the film suffers from an overly busy plot cast with too many characters. In bringing their adventure out into the streets, writers Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio with "Minions's" Brian Lynch strain the charming concept of their title. Imagine what Pixar would have done with this idea without any animals ever leaving their homes.
Although we later learn of Duke's sad past, the filmmakers pose an immediate problem by making him unlikable, aggressively taking over Max's bed. Out on the streets, though, they begin to bond trying to make their way home. When they run into a bunch of vicious alley cats led by the hairless Ozone (voice of Steve Coogan), the resulting melee lands them in an animal control van along with the massive, muzzled Ripper. But help comes from a most unusual place, a cute little bunny and tattooed pig, seeking to free their friend. Help comes with a catch, though. Snowball is the leader of the 'Flushed Pets,' unwanted animals determined to get back at humans and Max and Duke, who've conveniently lost their collars, must pretend to go along.
Meanwhile, back at Max's, Gidget becomes frantic when Max doesn't return from his walk. She makes her way to the rooftop and turns a predator, lonely red tailed hawk Tiberius (voice of Albert Brooks), into an ally by promising to be his bestie if he helps her find Max. Gidget forms her own counter army with apartment pets cat Chloe (voice of Lake Bell), Dachshund Buddy (voice of Hannibal Buress), Pug Mel (voice of Bobby Moynihan), Guinea Pig Norman (voice of director Renaud) and Parakeet Sweetpea. They seek assistance from old Basset Hound Pops (voice of Dana Carvey), whose knowledge of the city trumps his handicap.
It's supposed to be funny that the cutest animals - a tiny kitten, a bunny, the Pomerian - are the film's most vicious, but Snowball flips his viewpoint more than a political candidate and time spent with him and his gang (which include alligators and snakes) wears thin pretty quickly. More padding occurs in Max and Duke's foray into the Weiner Kingdom factory complete with surreal over eating fantasy. The saddest aspect of "The Secret Lives of Pets" does not belong to an animal, but Duke's former owner, Fred, largely uncommented upon due to the filmmakers' stated desire to not anthropomorphize their characters (in a film where cats visit the fridge, dogs unlock cages with keys and convince predators not to eat them).
"The Secret Life of Pets" is at its most enjoyable in its smaller moments - a guinea pig lost for three weeks inside the walls of his building, a poodle into heavy metal punk. The copious action scenes work best with supporting characters, Pops's unconventional methods for traversing a construction site in a wheelchair and Gidget's climactic ass whooping more fun than anything Max and Duke get up to. Vocal performances are serviceable, none really elevating their characters, Hart shrill.
Better is the short which precedes the movie. "Mower Minions" finds the lovable yellow imps concocting a scheme to make money by hiring themselves out as landscapers. Chaos ensues, all in the pursuit of an infomercial kitchen appliance.
Grade: B- for "The Secret Life of Pets," B for "Mower Minions"
Robin did not see this film.
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