Why does "The Secret Life of Pets" exist? I mean besides the obvious reasons, like the bankability of family-friendly animation, the ticket surcharges for 3-D or the fact that Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment are trying to boost their share of the non-Minion collectible toy market. No, the questions and possibilities raised by this new feature-length cartoon — antically directed by Chris Renaud and his co-director, Yarrow Cheney — are too deep and perplexing to be discussed in such crass commercial terms.
Does the movie perhaps mean to enlighten the stereotypically inclined animal lovers in the audience — to show us that dogs can be more than dumb, slobbering oafs and that not all cats are contemptuous, self-absorbed snobs? That unbeknownst to us, our favorite domestic animals are actually fascinating, fully developed characters in their own right? Now that we've observed the secret lives of bees, the American teenager and Walter Mitty, does this latest tell-all actually contain any secrets worth spilling?
If only. Opening with a Taylor Swift-scored tribute to New York and ending with a traffic-stopping action climax that has the grave misfortune of following "Finding Dory" into theaters, "The Secret Life of Pets" is governed by a spirit not of revelation but of confirmation. Arriving in the dog days of an unusually mediocre summer for big-studio entertainments, the picture is a glorified hairball pulled together from the strands of better, more appealing movies and then noisily coughed up and disgorged at a multiplex near you.
The three screenwriters (whose combined credits include the "Despicable Me" movies as well as the Dr. Seuss adaptations "The Lorax" and "Horton Hears a Who!") have concocted a familiar lost-and-found fable starring Max, a floppy-eared, skinny-legged terrier with a big brown nose and the average-guy voice of Louis C.K. For Max, life is pure bliss: He adores his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), and has free rein over her New York City apartment — that is, until Katie brings home an enormous, shaggy brown rescue named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), forcing Max to share his creature comforts.
Max seeks distraction and emotional support from the other pets in the neighborhood, including Chloe (Lake Bell), a fat cat who can't keep her claws out of the fridge; Norman (Renaud), a directionally challenged guinea pig; Buddy (Hannibal Buress), a dachshund whose whose body provides one of the movie's better visual gags; and Sweetpea, a parakeet with a fondness for flight-simulator video games. But his best friend, though he doesn't yet know it, is Gidget (Jenny Slate), a fluffy, fiercely loyal white Pomeranian who adores Max from her white-walled modernist pad across the street.
The most amusing sequence (already spoiled in the trailer) shows these and other animals having fun and acting naughty once their owners' backs are turned, initially suggesting that "The Secret Life of Pets" might turn out to be the "Toy Story" of talking-animal movies. It is nothing of the kind, unless "Toy Story" suddenly turns into a bad movie when our backs are turned. Resisting the temptation to invest its characters and storytelling with any particularly winsome, distinctive qualities, the film quickly devolves into an infernally busy and overextended chase sequence crammed with desperately unfunny comic patter and noisy, pointless action.
A series of events conspires to unleash Max and Duke on the streets and sewers of New York and send them running frantically in every direction. Along the way, they must bury the hatchet, avoid the dog pound and escape an anti-human terrorist cell consisting of various stray animals with a vengeful hatred for domestic pets. The story's lack of imagination is matched only by its excess of noxious attitude; after all, you've never been entertained until you've heard a homicidal bunny rabbit yell "Long live the revolution, suckers!" in the manic squeal of Kevin Hart.
If that doesn't do the trick, perhaps you'd like to hear classic songs like "Stayin' Alive" and "Lovely Day" shoveled like kitty litter into the cracks of Alexandre Desplat's brassy musical score. Surely the surprise martial-arts showdown or the completely random homage to "The Abyss" will tickle your fancy. Or here, check out this dream sequence in which Max and Duke visit a sausage factory, hurling themselves into a sort of magical wiener wonderland that may remind you how much funnier it was when Homer Simpson visited the Land of Chocolate.
Visually as well as dramatically, Renaud and his collaborators employ the same undiscriminating, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic that has become a hallmark of the Illumination brand. (In case you'd forgotten what that brand is, the feature is being shown in theaters with an atrocious four-minute short called "Mower Minions.") Compared with the higher budgets and superior standards at the animation houses of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks (which was recently acquired by Universal), the movie boasts a polished but unflattering visual style that is admirable, at least in theory, for abandoning photorealism in favor of a more angular, stylized direction.
The pets, with their comically exaggerated features and body types, are unlikely to out-cute the pictures on your favorite BuzzFeed list. But critter characters needn't be aww-inspiring to be engaging. And some here — like Gidget, whom Slate brings to raspy, sparky comic life, and Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a predatory eagle trying to stay on his best behavior — succeed in diverting you for a moment, even if they pale next to the expressive character design and intelligent cross-species subtext that distinguished this year's other, far superior animal-kingdom cartoon.
Which brings us back, in a roundabout fashion, to my earlier question. Perhaps the real reason "The Secret Life of Pets" exists is to remind you how good "Zootopia" was — which, since many of us still remember, is no reason at all.
'The Secret Life of Pets'
MPAA rating: PG, for action and some rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: In general release