The best thing about “The Secret Life of Pets” is that it’s better than “Minions,” Illumination Entertainment’s last failed attempt to replicate the Pixar magic. But then that’s like saying Zika is a step up from e Coli.
Joyless and lazy, the story of a menagerie of house pets on a citywide search for two missing chums is little more than the umpteenth rehash of the “Toy Story” formula minus the cleverness and charm. What it does offer is terrific animation, providing a dog’s-eye view of New York City, from Gotham’s grimy sewers to its sparkling penthouses. And the critters inhabiting these meticulously drawn spaces are adorable, even the slithering multitude of snakes and scraggly felines.
The movie starts off well, too. As seen in the ubiquitous TV ads, it imagines what our beloved pets do while we’re at work. A dachshund makes a cake mixer his personal masseuse; a primped-up poodle clicks on the stereo for a little head banging; or like the main attraction, a timid terrier named Max (voice of Louis C.K.), sits patiently staring at the front door eager for his person, Katie (Ellie Kemper), to return.
As a pet owner, I found the material to be true to life and instantly identifiable. I also foolishly expected the rest of the movie to maintain that level of authenticity as it dug deeper into how our cats, dogs and the rest find ways to pass those lonely hours. But after a solid 10 minutes, writers Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch hastily abandon that path in favor of cribbing from the Pixar canon by taking the pets out of their comfort zones and sending them into the streets, where danger lurks around every corner.
Director Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”) follows the Pixar blueprint diligently, substituting pets for toys. But he fails to inject it with the depth of feeling films like “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” generate, causing the pace to plod and eyes to roll over the mounting implausibilities.
Like Woody in “Toy Story,” Max is put off when Katie brings home a new “friend” in lumbering sheepdog Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who quickly grabs all of the attention. While in the park with their addled dog walker, Max and Duke break away to tussle, losing their collars and ending up in the nets of animal control. As in the other dozen or so “Toy Story” wannabes, Max and Duke manage to escape, hooking up with a passel of strays who were evicted by their owners.
Leading the human-hating renegades is Snowball, a fluffy white rabbit whose docile appearance belies his “street” personality.
He’s voiced by the inexplicably popular Kevin Hart, whose tired shtick has long passed its shelf life. He grates and grates until you wish Snowball would end up under the rear wheels of a cement truck. Hart is supposed to be a supporting character, but he so dominates that Max and Duke become afterthoughts in their own movie. Was Renaud afraid to tell Hart to tone it down?
As if that wasn’t already too much plot, “Pets” adds yet another layer by rounding up Max’s furry friends back at the apartment house — including his secret admirer, a Pomeranian named Gidget (Milton’s perky Jenny Slate) — and sending them out into the streets to search for him. Their adventures, thanks largely to an entertainingly ambidextrous dachshund, are far more appealing to those of Snowball and his gang, but guess with whom we spend most of our time.
After a cacophonous climactic chase on the Brooklyn Bridge featuring a vehicle dangling off the passage’s side, ala “Spider-Man,” the film finally finds the heart and charm it has been so hopelessly missing. But by that time, there’s less than 5 minutes left — a classic case of too little too late. Yet it’s a reminder of how good “Pets” might have been had it not been so eager to pander to small fries with its cheapening poop jokes and lame pop-culture references, most of which will sail right over their heads. Like the crack about the escalating value of Brooklyn real estate.
Therein lays the movie’s biggest problem. Instead of telling an emotionally charged story like “Zootopia,” Renaud and company voraciously pander by overanalyzing in hopes of reaching the lowest common denominator. It’s a total sellout of art to commerce, making it an ideal vehicle to peddle pet food, but a terrible way to tell an involving story. I say skip it; and I’m sure your dog or cat would agree, because we don’t need dog dung like this to know home is where they want you to be.
“The Secret Life of Pets”
Featuring the voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate and Lake Bell.
(PG for action and some rude humor)