The basic premise of The Secret Life Of Pets is simple, and cute: What do our pets do all day when we’re not home to watch over them? The opening scenes of the film demonstrate just that in a series of charming vignettes, visiting all the pets in an apartment building in an idealized Manhattan where the trees actually have leaves and there’s no trash on the sidewalk. Taylor Swift’s “Welcome To New York” and a handful of other geographically appropriate pop hits play on the soundtrack, although most of the music comes from veteran composer Alexandre Desplat’s light, jazzy score. Left to their own devices, the animals do some things you might expect them to do (bark at squirrels, chase balls, stare longingly at leftovers in the fridge) and some you might not (throw wild parties with toilet-water chugging contests and a soundtrack by Andrew W.K.).
Louis CK—this is New York, he’s practically obligated to show up—stars as the voice of Max, a cheerful, easily distractible, slightly dopey terrier who’s wholly devoted to his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). The role doesn’t require much dramatic heavy lifting on CK’s part, but for those used to his cynical sad-sack persona on Louie, it’s fun to see him playing such a gee-whiz character. The rest of the comedian-heavy voice cast plays more to type: Albert Brooks as a self-loathing hawk, for example, or Jenny Slate as hyperactive Pomeranian Gidget, who—despite Slate’s great voice performance—would be more interesting if she had any motivation besides her crush on Max. Also in the neighborhood are Lake Bell as fat, indifferent house cat Chloe, Bobby Moynahan as cowardly pug Mel, Tara Strong as chickadee Sweet Pea, and Hannibal Buress as Jello-boned dachshund Buddy.
Max’s life with his animal friends is a happy one—until Katie brings home big, clumsy Chewbacca-esque mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the pound, throwing his orderly world into chaos. Before long, they’ve escaped the dog park and the movie shifts gears from episodic slice-of-life to high-stakes adventure, until that gentle joke about laser pointers from the first act seems like it comes from a totally different movie than the one that almost lets its canine protagonists drown in the East River, twice. Much of the second act consists of a series of chase scenes as Max and Duke run from a gang of renegade former pets flushed into the NYC sewer system, led by a adorable-but-psychotic white rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) who’s intent on killing all humans. Max and Duke’s friends come looking for them in the sewers, the “Flushed Pets” chase them out, and so on, until the rabbit is barreling in a stolen MTA bus across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s kind of like Toy Story—or any of the other Pixar movies that follow the same formula—but with tattooed pigs instead of mutant toys.
Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch’s script includes some clever observations on the dynamic between animals and humans, and some funny lines “for the grownups” without relying too heavily on the dreaded dirty double entendre. (At one point, Max tells Duke he’s a “bad dog,” though he hesitates to call him this because it’s “an insult to our species,.”) That’s not to say there aren’t poop and pee jokes, or Looney Tunes-style slapstick pratfalls. It’s a kids’ movie, one made by the director of both Despicable Me movies, Chris Renaud, and the production designer of same, Yarrow Cheney. But, again, most of these lines are concentrated in the film’s first half. As it progresses, The Secret Life Of Pets starts to overreach dramatically, and loses some of its charm in the process. It should have taken a cue from YouTube, and realized that you really don’t need much more than a cat and a vacuum cleaner to make people smile.