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14 Jul 2016

So-So Summer Fare: 'The Secret Life of Pets' Offers Up Some Laughs and a Few Truly Deranged Moments

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A scene from The Secret Life of Pets. A scene from The Secret Life of Pets.

A bunch of comedians lend their voices to some cartoon characters, and the results are moderately entertaining. The Secret Life of Pets is good for a laugh or two, and the occasional wacked-out moment makes it a semi-original animated movie.

Yeah, this is not a ringing endorsement.

Louis C.K. voices Max, a Jack Russell terrier who loves his master, Katie (Ellie Kemper, of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), with that undying loyalty that makes dogs so damn cool. However, when Katie brings home a new brother for Max, a big, brown shaggy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), it creates turmoil in the household.

This leads to that, with Max and Duke eventually winding up in the hands of Animal Control, and eventually fending for themselves inside the sewers of Manhattan. There, they become enemies of the Flushed Pets, a group consisting of alligators, lizards, snakes and furry critters, all led by Snowball the Rabbit (Kevin Hart, on a sound-booth tear).

Trailers and advertisements have suggested that the movie is about what our pets do around the house when we leave home. That part of the film is out of the way in the movie’s opening minutes. (They basically eat all of our food, have parties and listen to punk rock.) The rest of the movie follows the band of pets in Max’s neighborhood who are trying to find Max and Duke after they get lost.

Some of the sequences are borderline deranged. Max and Duke wind up in a sausage factory, where they gobble down hot dogs in an almost-hallucinatory scene set to Grease’s “We Go Together.” This doesn’t feel like the stuff of kids’ movies; it’s a sequence that seems as if the animators took a little LSD break, came back to their computers, and conjured up some wild shit.

The same can be said for the sewer stuff, which might terrify kids younger than the age of 8 (as well as some of the softer, sweeter adults in attendance). For starters, there’s a snake down there that initiates new members of the Flushed Pets crew by biting or eating them.

Directors Yarrow Cheney (making his feature-film-directing debut) and Chris Renaud (the Despicable Me movies) use a very frantic pacing style that becomes a bit of a headache at times. Much of the movie goes by at whiz-bang speed, although the action is fairly coherent.

The animators came up with a fun vision of New York City, with apartment buildings squished into each other, and a compressed Manhattan skyline. They manage to make the city look friendly and crazy at the same time, which is the way many of the city’s residents would describe their home.

One of the greater joys of the movie is hearing Louis C.K. toning things down for PG-rated animated fare. He has a gift for playing a dog, and Max even looks a little like him. Louis C.K. is a passionate endorser of NYC, and he’s right at home.

Hart goes for something a little more evil with his rabbit, giving the killer bunny from Monty Python and the Holy Grail a run for its money. With this, and his recent pairing with Dwayne Johnson in the sort-of=OKCentral Intelligence, Kevin Hart is having himself a sort-of-better-than-average, slightly-better-than-fair-to-middling summer.

Where does The Secret Life of Pets rank on the list of animated movies released so far in 2016? It’s well below Zootopia, and somewhat short of Finding Dory, but still OK. No, you don’t need to run out and see this one, but if it should play in front of your face, there’s a good chance you will enjoy substantial parts of it.

The Secret Life of Pets is playing at theaters across the valley.

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