Movie News & Reviews

‘The Secret Life of Pets’ strays and loses its way: 2.5 stars

A dutiful terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.) runs afoul of Snowball (Kevin Hart), a former magician’s rabbit who runs a subterranean gang in New York City.
A dutiful terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.) runs afoul of Snowball (Kevin Hart), a former magician’s rabbit who runs a subterranean gang in New York City. Universal Pictures

I’ve always suspected my dog does more than sleep when I leave the house. “The Secret Life of Pets” reinforces this hunch.

In this animated feature, some pets crank up heavy-metal music or play video games. Others throw parties or take unsupervised trips around the neighborhood.

When “Pets” sticks to this simple concept, it’s comical and charming. But it eventually succumbs to baser instincts, becoming noisy, chaotic and borderline feral. By the time a rabbit recklessly drives a car across the Brooklyn Bridge, this cinematic beast has turned ugly.

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) enjoys a delightful, co-dependent life in a New York apartment with his young owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper).

“We have a perfect relationship,” the brown and white terrier explains.

Then she brings home another rescue pet: a mix of fur and girth named Duke (KCK’s Eric Stonestreet).

Max considers his new roommate “the doom of all good things” after Duke starts hogging the bed and Katie’s attention. The rivalry becomes even more perilous when the two mutts get lost in the city. Soon they’ve run afoul of a gang of alley cats and an army of abandoned exotic pets led by a former magician’s rabbit called Snowball (Kevin Hart).

With 2016 already crowded with anthropomorphized animal flicks — some exceptional (“Zootopia”) and some adequate (“The Angry Birds Movie”) — a few things distinguish “Pets” from its competitors.

Most notable is its stylized vision of Manhattan, which sways between the romanticized parks and high-rises of Woody Allen to the seedier sewer grates and alleyways of Martin Scorsese. In co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney’s presentation, the metropolis appears bathed in perpetual “magic hour” light — or at least a New England-y autumn. It’s stunning.

Also agreeable are the voice actors chosen for the animals. Edgy comedian C.K. commits wholly to a family-friendly gig, and his lack of snark seems refreshing. It’s also nice to hear “Modern Family” star Stonestreet in a grounded role so far removed from his histrionic signature character. Other standouts include Lake Bell as a spoiled house cat and Jenny Slate as a white Pomeranian who fancies Max a little too much.

But once Max and Duke lose their collars and become targeted by animal control officers, the movie likewise begins to stray.

A hooded hawk voiced by Albert Brooks introduces a carnivorous danger to the tale that is gradually discarded. (Just one of many superfluous creatures introduced and then neglected along the way.) A lengthy detour involving Duke’s backstory adds nothing to the plot, robbing the flick of its forward momentum.

Then Snowball re-enters the scene, dominating the action as the Minions did in the “Despicable Me” series. (Not surprising, considering the directors are veterans of that franchise.) The image of a cute bunny causing havoc hasn’t seemed fresh since “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” But the filmmakers and the chattering Hart overplay it as if they hold sole rights to Snowball’s merchandising profits.

“Liberated forever. Domesticated never,” Snowball trumpets to rile up his underground troops.

Yet the dismissal of the domesticated viewpoint hardly liberates “The Secret Life of Pets.” Instead, it allows the story to get unleashed and ultimately escape from the filmmakers.

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

‘The Secret Life of Pets’

  1/2

Rated PG. Time: 1:27.

3-D or not 3-D?

The 3-D adds welcome texture, further enhancing the already clean and bright visual scheme.

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