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Family Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets (PG)

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MPAA Rating: PG          Length: 90 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 6+. Some cartoon violence, including fistfights, numerous car crashes, the threat of drowning, an initiation ritual that includes a snakebite, and a ruse where pets pretend they killed their masters to get in good with the other group. Some wild party scenes from the pets’ perspective, some bullying, a few characters die off-screen, some bathroom humor (including jokes about defecating and pets being fixed), and a lecherous character who calls another his girlfriend, even though his feelings aren’t returned.

‘The Secret Life of Pets’ has a number of cute moments that will be familiar and comforting for those who love their dogs, cats, birds, or other animals. But the story itself is mostly unremarkable, and its narrative shortcuts will annoy parents.

By Roxana Hadadi

What do your pets dare to do when you’re not around? In reality, it’s probably not playing video games, receiving massages from kitchen mixers, or breaking into your refrigerator and eating your roast chicken. But those are the kind of cute images offered up by “The Secret Life of Pets,” which plays to animal lovers in the audience without offering up much original story.

In comparison with other family summer fare like “Finding Dory” or “The BFG,” “Pets” just isn’t that creative. The story, about a pair of dogs who don’t get along crossing paths with a gang of human-hating animals and trying to get back home to their owner, is pretty standard stuff. This will be best for younger viewers, and the short film beforehand, “Mower Minions,” is tailor made for that demographic: lots of slapstick-y humor from those little yellow characters, lots of visual gags, not so much on the emotional depth or nuance.

There are funny and weird moments in “Pets”—like a hawk daydreaming about being best friends with a Pomeranian, or a fantastical romp through a sausage factory—but they’re infrequent. Instead, “Pets” commits itself primarily to thoughtless cuteness, and that may get irritating for parents as the film takes greater shortcuts toward its conclusion.

“Pets” begins with the terrier Max (voiced by Louis C.K., of “Blue Jasmine”), who lives with his owner, Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper, of “They Came Together”), in New York City. They do everything together, and Max thinks they’re soulmates. But he’s caught off-guard when Katie comes home one day with Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet, of “Identity Thief”), a former stray.

Katie has high hopes for the pair, but they couldn’t be any more different: Max is small, proper, and kind of anxious; Duke is huge, sloppy, and a little bossy. But when Max threatens Duke and tries to force him out of the apartment, Duke sabotages their walk, separating them from their fellow pet friends and ending up in the hands of Animal Control.

The authorities aren’t their only problem: There is also a human-hating gang of discarded pets led by Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart, of “Central Intelligence”), a former magician’s bunny who is obsessive about leading a revolution against the “masters.” To escape Animal Control, Max and Duke have to team up with Snowball and his comrades, but soon they’ll be found out as frauds.

Amid all this, the Pomeranian Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate, of “Zootopia”), who has a crush on Max, is trying to organize their friends to help find Max. “Max doesn’t even know you’re alive,” another dog says, but that won’t stop her.

The way “Pets” is split into two storylines allows numerous attempts for ridiculousness, and the best moments come from Louis C.K. and Hart, who give great vocal performances. Louis C.K. is the perfect kind of put-upon personality to sell complaints about Duke like “He’s the death of all good things!”, and he nicely injects warmth and compassion later on in the film, too. Hart is his usual manic self as Snowball, but his performance contrasts effectively with the animal’s fuzzy physicality, getting maximum impact from exclamations such as “Liberated forever, domesticated never!” and a running gag about the grief Snowball feels for a duck, Ricky, who died serving their cause.

But those elements aren’t enough to carry all of “Pets,” which eventually slips into tedious plotting to keep the characters running into and around each other. By the third time the pets steal a car, parents will wonder how much longer this story will get drawn out. “Pets” does cuteness well, but its struggles elsewhere demonstrate its shortcomings as truly creative children’s filmmaking.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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