“THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS” — 2½ stars — Voices of Louis C.K., Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell and Eric Stonestreet; PG (action and some rude humor); in general release
Based on its advertising, you get the feeling that “The Secret Life of Pets” is a movie custom-made for kids and animal lovers. But even if the film’s promotion makes it appear like a unique look at those quirky habits and behaviors that lead to all those popular pet videos on YouTube, “Secret Life of Pets” is a pretty familiar movie underneath its trappings.
The film’s protagonist is Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a short-haired terrier living the high life with his master Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a gorgeous New York City apartment. Every day, Max waits loyally at the door for Katie’s return from work, distracted only in brief spurts by peers such as the pampered white fluffball Gidget (Jenny Slate) and the traditionally detached feline Chloe (Lake Bell), who live elsewhere in the building.
But Max’s high life comes crashing down when Kate brings home a new roommate from the pound. Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is a giant mutt mess of hair, limbs and saliva, the kind of dog who can’t help but let his presence wreak havoc on his environment. Max despises him immediately, and Duke soon proves to prefer Machiavelli to milk bones.
This clash of breeds boils over one afternoon as Max and Duke are taken for a walk with several of the other neighborhood dogs. The odd couple gets separated from the group and soon find themselves lost in the city. To get home, they will have to deal with gangs of alley cats, schmooze their way through a local pet hangout, and confront the Flushed Pets, a gang of rejects who have retreated into New York’s animal underworld.
Luckily, Max and Duke have friends and neighbors looking out for them, led by Gidget and her longtime unrequited crush on Max. She manages to recruit a falcon named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) to assist her, once he promises not to try to eat any of them. They’ll need all the help they can get against the Flushed Pets, who are led by a deceptively cute and decidedly nasty white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart).
So for all its promotion, “Secret Life of Pets” is really just another movie about talking animals having an adventure. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that, but audiences might feel a little let down if they go in expecting a more original concept.
“Secret Life of Pets” also comes from, as the ads put it, “the humans behind Despicable Me.” And just in case you forgot that going in, a brief short starring the Minions that runs before the feature will remind you. “Secret Life of Pets” features the same kind of vibrant animation that defined the Despicable Me films’ signature look, and, of course, screenings are available in 2-D or 3-D options.
Louis C.K. does a fine job as Max, and Stonestreet provides a good foil as Duke. But while the leads are fun and relatable, supporting roles such as Snowball are more memorable. Maybe it’s because the filmmakers opted for generic, universal dog names for the leads, but it’s hard to see too many kids going out of their way to make “Secret Life of Pets” a success in the toy aisle.
Still, pet-loving adults will appreciate the film’s transparent nod to their affections. Even though the heart of the film is fairly routine, “Secret Life of Pets” is bracketed with explicit acknowledgment of the unique relationship between loving owners and their pets. It may not be enough to justify a full-price ticket, but it might make for a decent family matinee. And your dog will still love you either way.
“The Secret Life of Pets” is rated PG for action and some rude humor; running time: 90 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" for three and a half years. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.