When Pixar tells a story, as in the recent “Finding Dory,” it feels familiar and comfortable, only as repeated tellings of favorite stories can be. The new, animated “The Secret Life of Pets” also tells a familiar story, but without the warmth. It feels like a dashed-off, phoned-in attempt at a story, as if told by a busy grownup with better things to do.
“The Secret Life of Pets” (shouldn’t that be “Secret Lives of Pets”?) starts with a wonderful idea: What do pets do while owners are away?
In one case, a dachshund uses a mixer to scratch his back, and in another, a poodle switches an iPod from classical music to metal.
The possibilities are endless. Yet instead of exploring them, the movie copies the basic story line Pixar has employed: Two mismatched characters are stranded and must learn to work together to return home.
Modest-sized pooch Max (Louis C.K.) is happy with his person, Katie (Ellie Kemper), until she brings home another dog. The disproportionately huge Duke (Eric Stonestreet), looks like the man-sized Muppet Sweetums, with ropey fur and a nose the size of a steering wheel.
While fighting, the two dogs get lost. They cross paths with an army of alley cats as well as an evil bunny, Snowball (Kevin Hart), who leads an anti-human army of rejected and forgotten animals. Hart’s performance is typically gabby, as if helplessly craving all the attention in the room.
Another group of good pets, led by white, fluffy girl dog Gidget (Jenny Slate), tries to find the lost canines.
Director Chris Renaud (and many on the crew) made the clever, witty “Despicable Me” movies, which weren’t afraid to get a little nasty. “Pets” feels more domesticated; with brilliantly acid-y comedian Louis C.K. in the lead, it’s hard not to expect something a little edgier.
Certainly, the movie looks terrific, with its rich New York City setting and many varied shapes, colors and textures of animals (including a crocodile and a hawk).
It moves quickly, but perhaps a little too quickly, with single-minded focus on frequent adrenaline-fueled kung-fu fights and chases (and even an out-of-place scene with psychedelic sausages).
Perhaps it might have been fun if the animals imagined themselves playing parts in a made-up run-of-the-mill Hollywood action-comedy. That, at least, would have been better than an actual run-of-the-mill Hollywood action-comedy.
The Secret Life of Pets
Two and a half stars
Starring: Voices of Louis C.K., Jenny Slate, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
Written by: Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul
Directed by: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes