The Secret Life of Pets
★★★ ½ stars
Opening Friday, July 8, 2016

From the creative team that brought you Despicable Me and those rascally Minions, The Secret Life of Pets is an exquisitely calibrated family movie with plenty of laughs for both grown-ups and kids. The concept is simple: What do our pets actually do while we’re away?

Animators have been riffing on this idea since the heyday of Looney Tunes, of course, and with good reason. It’s a virtually inexhaustible comedy premise. As approximately ten billion YouTube clips demonstrate daily, pets are funny. We like to watch them, and adore them, and—most important—anthropomorphize them.

The set-up: Fiercely loyal terrier Max (Louis C.K.) loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) with utter devotion. When newly adopted dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet) disrupts the domestic rhythms in their small New York City apartment, Max and Duke find themselves out on the mean streets, contending with various urban hazards, animal control officers, and a gang of feral cats.

Along the way, we meet a dozen or so other major animal characters, both domestic and wild. There’s Max’s would-be girlfriend, Gidget (Jenny Slate), a fluffball Pomeranian who lives in the apartment across the alley and later demonstrates some surprising kung fu skills. Albert Brooks voices a pet hawk, kept in a rooftop pen, who has trouble suppressing his predatory instincts. An old basset hound named Pops (Dana Carvey) lends his hard-won wisdom to the cause.

Meanwhile, the rascally rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) leads a Dickensian gang of abandoned pets that live in the sewers, several of which were literally flushed there. This is a very busy story, jammed with characters, and it’s a testament to the script that we never lose track of who’s who or what’s happening, even as the plot line spins out at breakneck speed.

Pets has a gleefully anarchic spirit that recalls the best of those old Chuck Jones classics. The story takes weird turns at regular intervals—watch for a bizarre sausage factory interlude—and the characters collide and carom off one another in a tumble of escalating comic setups. This is the most accomplished offering yet from Illumination, the animation studio that also produced The Lorax and Hop.

It’s also the prettiest. New York City, as animated in The Secret Life of Pets, is a gorgeous urban sprawl, bathed in the perpetual golden light of the most perfect autumn ever. I found my eye wandering over and over to the background compositions, with their idealized storefronts, warm colors, and funky geometries.

There’s a real artfulness to how this movie assembles all its component parts. The sight gags and rat-a-tat buddy-comedy dialogue are flat-out vaudevillian at times, while the crisp digital images and emotional swells will remind you of Pixar’s best films. (Structurally, the movie might as well be called Pet Story.) The grand background animation is classic Disney. When it all comes together, it’s a real delight.

Alas, when it all falls apart, it’s a real spectacle. The story collapses rather spectacularly in the final act, which has a panicky and anxious “we need a big finish” kind of energy. Pets lacks the sturdy emotional bedrock that powers Pixar classics like WALL-E or Inside Out. With nowhere to really land, the story tries to obscure its exit with the narrative equivalent of flash powder and smoke.

I feel compelled to admit that, while this may be a legitimate criticism, you have to be pretty up in your own head to even register it in the moment. I’m handicapped by my obsessive thinking about how stuff works, when I should just be enjoying the show. Don’t overthink it, and you’ll find The Secret Life of Pets is a fast and funny animated comedy, assembled by professionals, with a generous laughs-per-minute ratio. As a summer movie proposition, with or without the kids, it’s a square deal.