From the very first animated films of the silent era, cartoonists have always preferred to express the absurdities of human life through animals. Animal characters not only gave animators greater flexibility in exaggeration and humor — how much do Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, for instance, actually resemble rodents and rabbits? — but animals just make better cartoon characters. It’s that simple.
So, of course, an animated film called “The Secret Life of Pets” was bound to hit theaters eventually and this Friday it does so. This one is from Illumination Entertainment, the Universal-owned company that has struck theatrical paydirt with lower-cost CGI features such as the “Despicable Me” franchise and its spinoff “Minions.”
The team behind these films — CEO Chris Meledandri, his producing partner Janet Healy and director Chris Renaud — has concocted an easy-to-like and easy-to-laugh feature for mostly smaller viewers, swarming with an assortment of canines, felines, sewer rats, pigs, one cut-throat bunny and even an occasional crocodile and red-tailed hawk to give them an alternative Greater New York as seen by animals.
While borrowing thematically from Pixar’s legendary playbook — what do toys or pet fish or animals do when their owners are away? — the Illumination crew has imagined a unique menagerie of animal characters bursting with gags like circus clowns rolling out of tiny cars.
The gist of the matter, in a screenplay by Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul and Brian Lynch, concerns the wild adventures pets have in the 9-to-5 time period while owners are away and in particular the precarious and near picaresque adventures of two combative dogs struggling to share the same cramped Manhattan apartment.
Max, a pampered terrier voiced by Louis C.K., has lived an idyllic life with his big-hearted owner Katie until she brings home another rescue in a massive and furry mutt named Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet.
Their dispute takes them outside on the mean streets where they become lost thanks to a careless dog-walker and then encounter an underground rebellion of abandoned pets led by a cunning bunny named Snowball (a street smart Kevin Hart).
Desperate to find Max, his secret admirer, a surprisingly tenacious white Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), enlists such disparate characters as Tiberius the hawk (Albert Brooks) and a crafty old basset hound, Pops (Dana Carvey), to find Max before his mistress returns from work.
Working cleverly off animal stereotypes, the makers dream up other entertaining animals such as Lake Bell’s Chloe, a fat cat that scarcely bothers about anything other than food; Bobby Moynihan’s excitable, lady-killer pug; Hannibal Buress’ sarcastic dachshund; and Steve Coogan’s alley cat with an attitude (and curious lower-class British accent).
Story and characters are geared for maximum activity and noise, as if the Illumination crew fears even a moment of quiet. Then there’s plethora of pop songs on the soundtrack to make sure you’re distracted from the fact the film is often running in place.
“The Secret Life of Pets” is silly fun in a Hellzapoppin way with a raft of animal characters, challenges to be overcome and cliffhangers jamming every moment of every frame of this film. The voice cast is superb but the sentimental lessons learned by movie’s end get laid on a bit thickly for many adults.
The most successful moments, interestingly, happen early when the movie is getting settled into its animal kingdom. Here animators have fun with pet personalities based on breed and animal types.
The challenge with Illumination’s low budget approach is clearly they aren’t attracting the kinds of story talent rivals Pixar and DreamWorks bring into the fold. The animation studio is, perhaps sagaciously, playing to be third best, copying the formulas of others and hiring aboard top-flight vocal talents to punch up even mediocre gag lines.
It’s worked so far and continues to do so with “The Secret Life of Pets.” But this is no Pixar film, folks, and it isn’t striving to be.
Opens: July 8, 2016 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Illumination Entertainment, Illumination Mac Guff, Universal Pictures International Voice cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan
Director: Chris Renaud
Co-director: Yarrow Cheney
Screenwriters: Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul, Brian Lynch
Producers: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy
Production and character designer: Eric Guillon
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Art director: Colin Stimpson
Computer graphics supervisor: Bruno Chauffard
Animation directors: Jonathan del Val, Julien Soret
Editor: Ken Schretzmann
PG rating, 91 minutes