In what may as well be Illumination’s answer to “Toy Story,” “The Secret Life of Pets” imagines how domesticated animals behave while their owners’ backs are turned, concentrating on a dynamic where newly adopted dog Duke (“Modern Family” star Eric Stonestreet, in the Buzz Lightyear role) disrupts the balance in a household where Max (Louis C.K., as the Woody equivalent) had previously been his human’s best friend. The formula may be familiar, but the personalities are completely fresh, yielding a menagerie of loveable — if downright ugly — cartoon critters banding together to help these two incompatible roommates from ending up on the streets.
Based on an original idea by Illumination honcho Chris Meledandri, “Pets” is the studio’s most accomplished feature, from both a story and animation standpoint, tapping into an endlessly expandable core concept — which could conceivably be repeated ad infinitum, ideally with an entirely new domesticated ensemble each time out. Not that there’s anything wrong with these particular animals, apart from the fact that they all look just a little bit off, as if someone took the runt of each litter and pumped them full of Cheez Whiz.
Humans already have a tendency to anthropomorphize their pets, and here, tapping into that wish we all share to know what’s going on in our animals’ heads, screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (who have co-authored all of Illumination’s features except “Minions”), along with Brian Lynch (who wrote “Minions”), take that impulse to the extreme, imbuing these critters with the ability to speak — along with a host of other behaviors that would normally require opposable thumbs and a fair understanding of modern electronics.
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The instant their owners leave for work, the pets drop the obedient routine and revert back to their true selves — the farther that might be from their actual disposition, the better. There’s the poodle who spends his afternoons headbanging to heavy metal, for example, and there’s Chloe (Lake Bell), the otherwise lazy cat who freely helps herself to whatever’s in the fridge.
Maybe it would all be a little too easy on audiences if the pet characters were any cuter, whereas any animal enthusiast can tell you it’s the disposition that matters. In most cases, the bond between owner and pet is too strong to dwell on deformities, whether it’s a crooked ear or missing limb. For instance, Max is a relatively ordinary terrier type whose four spindly little legs hardly seem adequate to support his top-heavy body, but Katie (Ellie Kemper) loves him all the same, while woolly brown Duke looks entirely too dirty to hug, like the Snuffaluffagus with a nose job. No wonder both have complexes about being abandoned — which is ironically what lands the two dogs locked out of their cushy apartment and at the mercy of feral cats, animal control officers and an army of abandoned former domestics known as the Flushed Pets (reminiscent of “Toy Story” neighbor Sid’s mutant toys).
Bent on revenge, the Flushed Pets are led by a street-smart bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), whose cuddly appearance masks a ruthless personality — a joke the film exploits on multiple occasions, as when Max’s would-be girlfriend Gidget (Jenny Slate), a white powder puff of a Pomeranian, switches into kung-fu mode. Though Max’s friends regularly stop by his apartment to hang out while Katie’s away for the day, Gidget’s the only one who actually notices his disappearance, mobilizing a citywide search to find the pooch she wants to smooch. The city in question is New York, which the good folks at Illumination have reimagined as a paradise of sorts for pets, where everything from Central Park to Brooklyn is bathed in a perpetual magic-hour glow (interiors, meanwhile, are lit like sitcom sets, with nary a corner in shadow).
Beneath the streets, it’s a different story, and though plenty of toons have taken us into that domain before (“Ratatouille,” “Flushed Away” and “The Boxtrolls,” to name just three examples from the last decade), Snowball’s underground realm supplies the secret life farthest from our own imagining. There are a few stray crocodiles, of course, some forgotten “Sea Monkeys” and an enormous viper, who is the kid-friendly film’s only casualty, his hilarious death-by-overkill turning the Flushed Pets against Max and Duke. But in the sewers of the city, we discover the consequences of those humans who don’t follow through on their responsibilities to the animals they adopt, which reinforces the urgency for our canine heroes to work out their differences and find their way home — all blown up to larger-than-life proportions via composer Alexandre Desplat’s big, bossy Gershwin-esque jazz-band score.
Along the way, the ensemble sprawls ever larger, as Gidget recruits Tiberius (Albert Brooks), an ultra-predatory red-tailed hawk who can barely resist feasting on the various teacup breeds, and a half-paralyzed old Bassett Hound named Pops (Dana Carvey) for her increasingly unwieldy search party. While the proliferation of side characters tends to distract from the budding friendship between Max and Duke at the center of the story, each new critter offers an added window into the strange relationship between humans and their pets — a seemingly inexhaustible source of humor of which director Chris Renaud (helming his fourth Illumination feature) has only started to scratch the surface.
Just as Buzz and Woody did in “Toy Story,” the characters go from attempting to elbow one another out of their owner’s life to realizing that they actually need one another. The movie never actually says as much, but sharing the house with another dog makes a fine alternative to sitting by the front door all day waiting for the missing human to come home. While the Illumination formula invites far more humor into the mix than the relatively emotion-driven Pixar approach, diving headlong into such comic set pieces as the fantasy sequence where Max and Duke visit the Sausage Kingdom factory, the studio still hasn’t quite figured out how to sell the sentimental side. At times, “The Secret Life of Pets” feels like watching a marathon of silly animal tricks on YouTube, when what we really want is to transported into the heads of those creatures who’ve brought such joy to our own lives and to experience that connection through their eyes.
As usual, the Minions have a way of stealing the show, earning the film’s first laugh (via the four-minute “Mower Minions” short that precedes the feature) and disappearing until the final scene, when the Bobby Moynihan-voiced Pug shows up in a dog-sized Minion costume — a tiny taste of the pet-centric merch Illumination can expect to monopolize going forward.