-This funny and family-friendly animated diversion subverts negative expectations and stays enjoyable throughout.

The Secret Life of Pets tries to, through very exaggerated means, answer the classic question of “what do our pets do when we’re not around?”

At least, that’s what it was marketed as.

From Illumination Entertainment comes the most undemanding animated film in recent memory, an exercise in manic energy, cuteness, and mostly just plain enjoyment; easily the most prized output of Illumination’s relationship with Director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me 1 and 2, The Lorax).

Rarely does it happen when a trailer makes a movie look one way, and then the final cut deviates from the expected result, that we actually are receptive to the changes. Normally, if a trailer misleads us, we get upset, but with this film, it actually makes the entire thing a lot more enjoyable. The opening five minutes is exactly what we saw in the trailers, different animals living like kings/queens while their owners are out. The remaining film, although a slight retread of some notable films like Toy Story, deals with a more congealed plot.

Our main dog Max (Louis CK) has a great relationship with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), the only downside to his day is when she leaves for work. One day, however, she brings home a rescue dog, the big, oafish, tough Duke (Eric Stonestreet) with whom Max develops a rivalry. When one of their fights goes badly and they are whisked off to animal control, a few different events are set in motion:

The first, a puffy dog across the street Gidget (Jenny Slate) collects some local friends, including dogs voiced by Bobby Moynihan, Dana Carvey, and Hannibal Buress, a cat voiced by Lake Bell, and a predatory bird voiced by Albert Brooks, to help save Max and Duke.

The second, a rebellious group of sewer-dwelling, anti-owner animals are waging war against humanity led by the viciously cute bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart). Max and Duke try to make it home against all odds.

While the animation doesn’t go for realism, it is effective in the achievement of both scope and action. The animals act and move like their counterparts, and more is done to make their facial expressions render their personality than necessarily looking like legitimate dogs or rabbits. To add to this, though, is a very strongly rendered New York City that is breathtakingly surreal and cartoon-ish that houses our main characters. Although Illumination doesn’t go the Disney route in gorgeous, it’s still effective in setting up a very nice animated environment.

With this in mind, it’s really the voice cast that does the heavy lifting. The use of great comedic talent in the actors adds to gags and recurring jokes that stay funny, and slapstick that should have no business working, well, actually working. While Jenny Slate plays Gidget with such a cuteness that it could melt everyone’s hearts, it’s her costar Hart that wins the battle. Kevin Hart’s energy in this sadistic bunny is just a complete winner. I laughed almost uncontrollably every-time he talked. Wait for the “Ricky” gag. It’s the best.

The Secret Life of Pets is no groundbreaking achievement. It isn’t going to turn many heads for animation advancements or being the most heartfelt kids story like a Zootopia from earlier this year, but it works as a comedy, and maybe it can restore some faith in Illumination after I was ready to boycott the company due to the ‘Minions’ spin-off.

 

4 stars

 

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Genre: Family/Animation

Director: Chris Renaud (Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2, The Lorax)

Starring: Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, and Ellie Kemper

with: Lake Bell, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress, Dana Carvey, and Albert Brooks

RT Score: 76%

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