Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
Directed by: Yarrow Cheney (debut) and Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”)
Written by: Cinco Paul (“Despicable Me”), Ken Daurio (“Despicable Me”), Kevin Lynch (“Minions”)
If the new animated film “The Secret Life of Pets” were a domesticated animal itself, it would be one of those adorable albeit annoyingly-named hybrid dogs – a labradoodle or a cockapoo or, as Jeff Daniels describes in “Dumb & Dumber,” a bullshit (the cross between a bulldog and a shih-tzu). Each breed is face-melting cute and highly marketable, but essentially just another lovable, everyday mutt.
That’s not to say moviegoers won’t fall head over paws with the cast of furry, feathered and even hairless characters in the sixth animated feature film from Illumination Entertainment, the studio which also boasts the popular “Despicable Me” franchise in their catalog. While Illumination still hasn’t reached the storytelling heights of Pixar or Disney (what in the hell was “Hop” anyway?), the company’s cost-cutting animation techniques (they spend far less than their competition) are definitely not coughing up furballs either.
Despite the notable animation and top-notch voice work, “Pets” displays little originality in its script. In fact, “Dog Story” probably would’ve been a better title. The film tells the tale of Max (Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell Terrier living in a Manhattan apartment with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max’s perfect life is thrown out of whack when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a shaggy and somewhat reckless Newfoundland dog to join their family. When Max and Duke are snatched by the pound, Max’s animal friends, led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a squeaky, lovesick Pomeranian, set out to find the canine companions and bring them home before a psychotic, scene-stealing bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his wretched gang of abandoned pets turn them into puppy chow.
Ignore the countless and seemingly shameless similarities to the original “Toy Story” and “Pets” might be a little easier to take at face value. If you’ve ever wondered what your pet does when you leave home, the film’s screenwriters, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Kevin Lynch, devise some interesting ideas and adventures for these rogue pets to get into. And to be honest, aside from borrowing heavily from other movies, a lot of it is charming and harmless and funnier than your average poop jokes (although there are definitely poop jokes). Children won’t mind the familiar narrative and will flock to it because of the likeable animals, in which case “Pets” fall somewhere between the impressive “Zootopia” from Disney and the mind-numbing, app-turned-movie “Angry Birds” from Sony.
The animation film industry continues to expand every year, so studios have to know they’re vying for the same audiences and that parents are going to have to start getting a lot choosier when it comes to entertainment for the kiddos. Story matters. Luckily, “Pets” partakes in just enough wacky fun to make parents feel like they didn’t screw the pooch.