Perhaps only a kid-friendly animated film could have the power to bring together a comedy roster like this: Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks, Eric Stonestreet, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey and Hannibal Buress.
With such a heavyweight lineup of talent, it’s hard not to be at least slightly disappointed in the resulting project, “The Secret Life of Pets.”
The latest from Illumination Entertainment and Chris Renaud – the studio and director behind the “Despicable Me” films – simply does not live up to its cast or the hugely enjoyable trailer that’s been running for months. (Renaud co-directs with Yarrow Cheney.)
Yet there are certainly pleasures in this tale of the inner lives of Manhattan animal companions, and the voice cast is a big reason why.
“Louie” star Louis C.K. voices Max, a Jack Russell terrier living a comfortable life of happy domesticity with his owner, Kate (Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). Her departure for work each day leads to utter sadness (“I miss her so much,” Max opines within seconds of his owner’s absence).
While Max gets depressed, many of his fellow pets take great delight at having the apartment all to themselves. You’ve probably seen some of these moments in the trailer, and they’re just as winning here.
There’s the rotund cat trying desperately to keep herself from raiding the refrigerator. There’s the dachshund using a blender for a back massage. And there’s an increasingly exasperated pug unaware that he cannot get to the squirrel outside his window.
This sequence delighted the children at the film’s screening, and if the film had stayed in this milieu, it might have finished as a complete kid-flick success. The problem, as is often the case with films for children, is that the plot gets in the way.
Before things start to unravel, though, we are introduced to the big, messy, sometimes menacing Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet, “Modern Family”). Much to Max’s chagrin, Duke is taken in by the big-hearted Kate, and quickly takes over the apartment.
The two pets become instant rivals, and their resulting enmity leads both to great danger. First, they are confronted (rather hilariously) by street cats, then caught by animal control. Finally, they face the sewer-dwelling, human-despising “flushed pets.”
Led by maniacal rabbit Snowball (comedian and actor Kevin Hart), the flushed pets run a dark underworld of snakes, spiders, crocs, pigs and more. (The python’s tongue in 3-D was a nice touch.)
From this moment forward, “The Secret Life of Pets” is a by-the-numbers story of escape and pursuit, albeit with a wonderful, sausage-fueled hallucination sequence set to the “Grease” soundtrack – you read that correctly – and a maudlin diversion into Duke’s past.
As my 6-year-old put it, this all makes for a film that is “OK.” Indeed, my son’s opinion was dead-on. “The Secret Life of Pets” is an OK experience that could have been great.
As is always the case with Illumination, the animation is gorgeous and the pace is brisk. But, as with last summer’s “Minions,” scripts tend to be problematic. We don’t much care about Max’s journey, and even less about Duke’s.
That’s not the fault of C.K. and Stonestreet, though. Both actors imbue their dogs with personality and warmth. And it is, in fact, Jenny Slate who steals the movie. While the entire cast is strong – the most quotable lines come from a delightfully PO’d Kevin Hart – Slate’s white Pomeranian Gidget stands out as the most well-rounded, likable creation.
It is Gidget who leads the search for her beloved Max, joined by a motley crew of animals that includes a hardened hawk voiced by Albert Brooks. Slate, the truly gifted former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and star of the great indie movie “Obvious Child,” makes even the film’s weakest moments watchable.
Will children be satisfied? It’s more than likely that they will. But “The Secret Life of Pets” is unlikely to earn repeat viewings, and in the crowded kid-pic marketplace, that’s rather disappointing. Last year’s “Shaun the Sheep” was a far more effective and funnier handling of the animals-on-the-loose concept.
Now, a film of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks, Eric Stonestreet, Ellie Kemper and Hannibal Buress recording their dialogue? That would be memorable.
“The Secret Life of Pets”
2.5 stars (out of 4)
With the voices of: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks
Directors: Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney
Running time: 91 minutes
Rated: PG for action and some rude humor
The lowdown: A Jack Russell Terrier named Max sees his life as a favorite pet turned upside down when his owner brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke.