Secret Life is fluffy summer fun for fun’s sake

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


The Secret Life Of Pets
Opens June 8
3 out of 5

Minion-powered Illumination Entertainment seems to have surpassed DreamWorks Animation as the alternative to the Disney/Pixar behemoth. Less precious about their output than John Lasseter and co., Illumination movies tend to be cheaper and more madcap than their message-heavy counterparts. Considering their target audience is not particularly discriminating, this lowbrow approach has worked just fine, as long as they don’t mind not winning Academy Awards (zero so far).

In an effort to branch out beyond the three-feet tall yellow critters, Illumination has taken a page from the Toy Story playbook and amped-up the follies. There is nothing original about The Secret Life of Pets but the jokes come fast and furious, and the lack of substance doesn’t matter after 15 minutes of constant laughter.

The film’s premise imagines domestic animals having intense lives while their owners are at work. All, that is, but Max (Louis C.K.), a beagle whose entire existence revolves around his master, Katie. His singlemindedness becomes his undoing when Katie adopts a stray — a shaggy Newfoundland mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family).

While jousting over who is the minuscule apartment’s top dog, Max and Duke land on the street. Soon they run afoul of Animal Control and a gang of abandoned critters, and become New York’s most wanted (domestic animals). The neighboring pets put together a rescue mission, hampered by the fact they know nothing about the city outside.

At its best, The Secret Life of Pets has plenty of that ol’ Looney Tunes DNA. Snowball (Kevin Hart), the psychopathic white rabbit who’s the main antagonist, wouldn’t be out of place in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I’m not the biggest Hart fan, but in a controlled environment such as this one he knocks it out of the park.

The film’s supporting characters are far more amusing than the lead (the hard-rock loving poodle deserves a movie of its own and doesn’t get a word in). Louis C.K.’s droll delivery, so effective in the right environment, is the wrong choice for an animated character. This is particularly noticeable next to Steve Coogan’s cockney cat, Dana Carvey’s cantankerous Basset Hound and Albert Brooks’ duplicitous falcon.

There’s a degree of cartoon violence that may upset some kids (not to mention snake advocates, like the editor of this magazine). Also, the idea of flushed out pets ganging up to get back at their former owners can be a notch unsavory for young viewers. On the plus side, the film is not so cuddly that it will render parents catatonic.

In days where sequelitis runs rampant, hooray for a movie with internal logic that commits to an ending. It wouldn’t be hard to make a franchise of The Secret Life of Pets, but there isn’t a built-in need for closure.

Just to foster the brand, there is a minions short ahead of The Secret Life of Pets. It’s okay, with plenty of the critters being bad at gardening and resilient against gardening tools. But compared to Finding Dory’s appetizer — the photorealistic Piper — their shtick lands way short.

Save a couple of bucks and avoid 3-D: The difference is barely noticeable.