The Secret Life of Pets, the new comedy from Illumination Entertainment, is about as fluffy and light and inconsequential as animated filmmaking gets. The stakes are uniformly low, the conflict is kept to a minimum and with the runtime coming in right at the 90 minute mark, the pace is fittingly breezy too. For some, this movie may seem too shallow and well, childish, but in a year where Disney has chosen to explore more mature themes in features like Zootopia and Finding Dory, a bit of old-fashioned, mindless fun turns out to be a nice change of pace.
The story centers around a loyal terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), whose pampered life is turned upside down when his owner adopts a boisterous and gigantic Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). After a day at the dog park goes wrong, the two are picked up by Animal Control but are aided in their escape by a deceptively cute rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his team of rogue, abandoned pets. Meanwhile, a band of pets from Max’s building pool their efforts to scour the streets of New York City in an attempt to find the two lost dogs and bring them home safely.
Much like Illumination’s previous film Minions, Pets opens with a clever and engrossing montage that was covered a bit too thoroughly in the advertising previous to its release and feels a bit spoiled as a result. Still, it serves as a reliable framework and fitting introduction to the myriad of pet characters that exist in the giant apartment complex. Each pet really only has enough screen time to embody one or two personality traits (a Pomeranian named Gidget, for example, is a hopeless romantic who harbors feelings for Max) but much like the movie’s story and tone, the characterizations are appropriately nonchalant.
Though the characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be, a stellar voice cast that also includes Dana Carvey and Albert Brooks bring a tremendous amount of heart and energy to their collective performances. Speaking of heart, this is already Kevin Hart’s third movie released this year (Chris Rock even had a joke in the Oscars back in February about how many movies he does) but he proves again why he’s such a sought-after comedic talent. He brings the same manic charisma to his voiceover work here as he does for his live-action roles and the film is all the better for it.
This also marks a significant bump up in animation quality for Illumination as well, whose previous work was certainly serviceable in that area but not usually considered a focal point of their brand. Here, the setting of New York City in autumn leads to an animation design that’s crisp and vibrant, filled with all sorts of rich detail that’s always pleasing to the eye. Much like the simple comfort of cuddling with a loving dog after a long day at work, The Secret Life of Pets is a welcome distraction from the increasingly troubled world in which we live.