It was a clever trick for Universal to call its new animated offering “The Secret Life of Pets,” and to market it in a way that suggests it’s all about what our pets REALLY do while we’re out of the house. That sounds like a fun concept, right? There’s plenty of comedy potential in dogs, cats, and goldfish throwing daytime house parties while their owners are at work.
But that’s not what “The Secret Life of Pets” is about. There’s a brief montage of mischief near the beginning of the movie (as seen in the ads), but otherwise it’s a generic cartoon about talking animals having adventures in the big city, one of only three or four thousand cartoons ever made with that premise. Without the “what pets do while we’re out” hook, it’s children’s entertainment at its blandest and most creatively bereft.
Max (voice of Louis C.K.) is a happy terrier who lives with a nice human named Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a New York City apartment. Thanks to windows, air ducts, and doors that are apparently never locked, all the pets in the building have access to one another’s apartments, and they mingle freely during business hours. One, a white pooch named Gidget (Jenny Slate), has a crush on Max. There’s also a cat (Lake Bell), a pug (Bobby Moynihan), and a dachshund (Hannibal Buress), but we’re not going to pretend they have personalities. (I do like the sleek, cat-like character design of the dachshund, though.)
Max’s life is disrupted when Katie adopts another dog, a giant, shaggy thing named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Duke is a jerk to Max; Max responds with jerkiness of his own. On their first day together, while out with the dog-walker, they get lost and end up with a consortium of abandoned pets who live in the sewers and spend their days liberating captive animals. This resistance movement is run by Snowball (Kevin Hart), an adorable but ruthless bunny, and its members don’t like animals that are happy being pets. In fact, they’re in favor of pets killing their owners. As Max and Duke try to get away from these extremists and find their way home, Gidget and the others set out to find them.
Does it remind you an awful lot of “Toy Story”? It sure does! Although judging by the joke about the hot new trend of hipsters moving to Brooklyn, the “Secret Life of Pets” script might actually be older than “Toy Story.” (I kid. It was written, sometime in the last 10 years, by “Despicable Me” duo Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and “Minions” scribe Brian Lynch; the director is Chris Renaud, also of the “Despicable Me” series.)
But where Woody and Buzz clicked as well-meaning rivals with different philosophies who are forced to work together in a crisis, Max and Duke are ill-defined nobodies who merit very little attention separately, let alone as a duo. There’s no spark in their banter, largely because neither dog has any clearly defined character traits. I’ve seen the whole movie and I still couldn’t describe either of them beyond their physical appearance. The other characters are even flimsier, though a few are mildly funny: Snowball the motor-mouthed rabbit; Pops, an elderly basset hound voiced by Dana Carvey as his “SNL” Grumpy Old Man character; and Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a hawk who’s enlisted to search for Max and Duke from the air.
This is uninspired tripe cobbled together from the shards of other animated films. It’s full of energy but has no life. Full disclosure, though: it is a cartoon with bright colors and talking animals, so your kids will like it.
C- (1 hr., 30 min.; )