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Man Seeking Movies: ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ is cute, but not much more

A movie about our goofy pets makes for a surprisingly unemotional experience.

By Jack Cronin | July 13, 2016

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For animal lovers, the goofy and often clever “The Secret Life of Pets” should be an absolute delight. But those hoping for a movie with more than a cute premise might find it a little disappointing.

The latest film from Illumination Entertainment — the animation studio that made “Despicable Me” and “Minions” — asks what pets do when their owners leave for a day’s work. Some keep themselves busy with games and tasks; others celebrate their short-term freedom with parties.

Then there are pets like Max (Louis C.K.), whose daily plans consist of waiting for his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), to come home. As described in the film’s opening sequences, Max and Katie have lived a perfect life together in New York City since Katie adopted him as a puppy. Nothing could ever ruin their bond.

Or so Max thought before Katie brought home a burly, shaggy brown dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Stealing Max’s bed and food, the newly introduced Duke disrupts Max’s heavily routinized life. Threatened by Duke’s very presence, Max strives to assert his dominance as the alpha dog of Katie’s apartment.

All goes well until Duke fights back, leaving the two dogs lost and collarless in the streets of New York. Caught between animal control and an underground resistance of ownerless animals led by a psychotic rabbit called Snowball (Kevin Hart), Max and Duke are left with only each other to find their way home.

If this sounds like a cliched narrative, that’s because it is. In fact, “The Secret Life of Pets” plays like a cheap rip-off of Pixar’s “Toy Story,” but with pets instead of toys. Max is Woody; Duke is Buzz; the wiener dog named Buddy (Hannibal Buress) is Slinky-Dog; the ownerless animals are Syd’s group of misfit toys.

Duplicating “Toy Story’s” general narrative structure isn’t necessarily a bad idea. After all, Pixar’s first feature film is one of the best animated movies of all-time.

What makes the story struggle is that it spends too much time playing around with animal-based jokes and dedicates too little to its character development, leading to a far less emotionally resonant film. Viewers are shown how Max and Duke’s rivalry evolves, but the movie fails to make us feel what they feel. At some point, these characters need more than the endangerment of their lives to reflect real development.

While the narrative may be lacking, the film is littered with clever pet jokes that any animal-lover will surely enjoy. From butt scratches to playing fetch, the team of writers and directors truly understands why humans love their goofy pets.

In the realm of animated films, “The Secret Life of Pets” is pretty average. It’s funny and often clever, but never quite as witty or emotionally potent as “Zootopia.” And despite being a kids’ movie, Illumination Entertainment’s latest oddly doesn’t have a clearly discernable message.

“The Secret Life of Pets” is an amusing movie about our cute and goofy pets. Unfortunately, it’s not much more than that.

MOVE gives “The Secret Life of Pets” 3 out of 5 stars.

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