Secret's out: Life's no picnic for a pet
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (PG)
Comedy / 91 minutes / Opens today
Max (Louis C. K.) the terrier lives an idyllic life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie's not home, Max hangs out with his animal neighbours
in his apartment block.
Life couldn't be better, until Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet),
a mangy mammoth of a mongrel and, as Max sees it, a rival for his owner's affection.
It's not long before the canine duo find themselves out on the mean streets of New York following a misadventure, collarless and in the back of an animal-control van.
After deceiving Snowball (Kevin Hart) - a rabbit who leads a literal underground cabal of abandoned animals plotting the downfall of humanity - into springing them from their cage, they must work together to evade the deranged bunny and his minions and find their way home.
WHEN I was a kid, my family had a labrador. For lack of imagination, we named him Shadow, after the golden retriever from Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.
While watching Illumination Entertainment's movie, I was reminded not only of the 1993 film's plot but also Shadow and his mannerisms.
Like what Max does to Katie, our dog would greet my siblings and me when we returned home at the end of the day as if we had never met for years.
I'm sure many pet owners, current and former, would think of their animal companions too when watching the fifth fully animated feature film from the studio behind the Despicable Me franchise.
They and other animal lovers would probably appreciate the film's observational humour, like how dogs love chasing squirrels while cats prefer to hunt a laser pointer's dot beam.
Coincidentally, producer Chris Meledandri is no stranger to furry and feathered housemates, having grown up "with a cat and dogs and a bird". Yarrow Cheney - who co-directs the film with Chris Renaud - also helmed Puppy, a short about an alien taken in as a pet.
So it is disappointing that the two protagonists, Max and Duke, have bland personalities.
Those familiar with sad animal flicks would see Duke's backstory from a mile away and the duo's relationship arc doesn't feel convincing.
Hart - who tends to play effervescent characters - is perfectly cast as the deceptively cute maniac Snowball.
But the rabbit's single-minded pursuit of Max and Duke instead of continuing his anti-domestication crusade rings false, as does his sudden change of heart at the film's rushed climax and denouement.
The supporting cast are more fun to watch - Lake Bell's indolent cat Chloe, Dana Carvey's curmudgeonly basset hound Pops and Renaud's dim-witted guinea pig Norman are all part of a ragtag team looking for Max and Duke.
Two stand out from the menagerie: Gidget the pomeranian, Max's not-so-secret admirer who binge watches telenovelas, and Tiberius, a lonely red-tailed hawk whom Gidget frees from his coop and offers her friendship in return for finding Max.
Jenny Slate - last heard as a shy lamb in this year's Zootopia - plays a feistier and just as adorable creature here who is as earnest as she is naive.
Albert Brooks - whom Finding Nemo and Dory fans may recognise as Marlin the clownfish - is the gravelly-voiced Tiberius, who constantly fights his predatory urge to devour Gidget and her pals.
Many reviews have claimed the film cribs Toy Story's premise of non-humans leading secret lives and the leads' sibling-rivalry dynamic.
I would add that Pets also shares the themes of abandonment and displacement from Bolt and the secret sewer society of Flushed Away.
But I feel it's more important for a film to be well-executed than original. For the most part, Pets is successful in being a sweet-natured, if not very emotionally poignant, comedy-adventure.
There are a couple of entertaining, character-revealing moments like the pint-sized Gidget giving an alley cat - voiced with a Cockney accent by Steve Coogan - the third degree and Snowball hysterically lamenting a fallen comrade.
But these are tampered by lazy scatological jokes, which most American animated flicks tend to fall back on.
The slapstick-heavy action scenes are nothing to write home about either, although there is one gloriously anarchic fever-dream sequence involving dancing wieners singing Grease's We Go Together.
Alexandre Desplat's breezy, George Gershwin-inspired jazz soundtrack is a perfect fit for the Big Apple setting, which is gorgeously presented in vibrant, autumnal colours.
Minion fans, come early for Illumination's inaugural theatrical short, Mower Minions, which stars the Despicable Me critters.
There's nothing revelatory about The Secret Life Of Pets, especially for those who have "fur babies".
But like good old Shadow, it's irresistibly cute, easy to understand and has a big heart.