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‘The Secret Life of Pets’: Animated film’s humor is, like a dog whistle, subjective

🕐 3 min read

“The Secret Life of Pets” is like how I imagine dog food tastes: blandly palatable, but apparently containing some mysterious ingredient with an appeal that lies beyond my species. Though others at a recent screening were certainly gobbling up the animated, animal-centric comedy’s kibble of one-liners and sight gags, the film’s humor remained largely imperceptible to me.

I repeat: largely.

Kevin Hart provides the voice of the film’s villain, a manic, maniacal white bunny named Snowball, and he is, as you might expect, hilarious. Every minute the character is on screen is a demented joy, and every minute he is not is, well, not.

Snowball figures in the story thus: When the rivalry between a dutiful terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) and his slobbering new mutt of a housemate, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), spills out of their cozy apartment and into the street, the two dogs go missing, falling afoul of Snowball – a former magician’s rabbit relegated to the trash – and his subterranean gang of unwanted, undomesticated animals. Called the Flushed Pets, Snowball’s crew includes an alligator (presumably dumped down the toilet once it got too big) and a pig once used for inking practice in a tattoo parlor. With their irrational anger directed not at society, but at animals that have found human companionship – “leash lovers,” in Snowball’s spit-flecked parlance – the outcasts chase after Max and Duke, who are simultaneously being sought by a menagerie of their friends, led by a Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has a crush on Max.

And that, as they say, is that. Including a subplot involving animal control officers, the movie is essentially one long chase sequence,which itself is merely a pretext for a string of hit-or-miss jokes. When one of a bowl of Sea-Monkeys – weird-looking brine shrimp, a novelty pet sold from the back of comic books during the Cold War – cracks that, “It’s not our fault we don’t look like the ad,” you could have heard crickets chirping. There’s plenty of humor in the film that only a 5-year-old would appreciate. (Poop jokes, anyone?) But I’m not sure that viewers under 50 will get the Sea-Monkeys reference.

A few bits are more successful, including a surreal set piece in which Max and Duke, who have wandered into a hot dog factory, imagine an elaborate musical number featuring dancing weiners: “We Go Together” from “Grease,” as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley. It’s nutty, and has nothing to do with anything, other than the way dogs’ minds work.

Speaking of which, there’s precious little of that, other than a recurring gag about how easily dogs are distracted. (It was funnier in “Up.”) And the theme of human mistreatment of animals is no more than a whiff here. Why couldn’t the film have found a way to be both relevant and funny, a la “Zootopia”?

As for the voice talent, with the exception of C.K., whose put-upon comedic persona is a good fit for Max, and Hart, whose Snowball seems to be running on a liter of sugary soda and adrenaline, the characters sound pretty nondescript. Stonestreet is virtually unidentifiable, and several other actors – Lake Bell as a cat, Bobby Moynihan as a pug, Hannibal Burress as a dachshund – are wasted.

“The Secret Life of Pets” comes from Illumination Entertainment, which brought you “Despicable Me” and “Minions.” Its signature exaggerated animation style – spindly legs, oversized torsos – is on display, and occasionally inspired. But the humor is generic. And the film’s most obvious comparison – it’s been called a “Toy Story” with animals – only points up the one thing “Pets” lacks, and that any animal lover will tell you their furred and feathered friends have, in spades: personality.

Two stars. Rated PG. Contains slapstick action and rude humor. 91 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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