If anything stirs imagination in children of all ages more than toys, it's pets. One animation franchise nailed the former's fantasies, now it's Fido and Fluffy's turn.
The Secret Life of Pets surely isn't in the same pioneering league as Pixar's Toy Story trilogy, although creatively and emotionally they're similar. The shared conceit of "what do they do when we're gone?" is irresistible; this answer's escalation into madcap comedy is nearly as clever.
It's an impressive step forward for Illumination Entertainment, the folks behind the Despicable Me franchise. Co-directed by studio linchpin Chris Renaud and protege Yarrow Cheney, The Secret Life of Pets is funnier than Zootopia and fresher than Finding Dory. Bonus points for a genuinely touching finale that had me crying behind my 3-D glasses.
Set mainly in a gloriously drawn Manhattan, The Secret Life of Pets is centered on Max (voice of Louis C.K.), a giveaway terrier taken in by Katie (Ellie Kemper), bonding through several years. One day Katie brings home another dog, burly Duke (Eric Stonestreet), and rivalry ensues, including a vandalism frame-up brilliantly playing the human-as-we card.
That canine conflict is only a sliver of the anthropomorphic detours this movie takes. For reasons too wild to spoil, Max and Duke wind up outside the apartment, in the company of a tiny, white bunny named Snowball, hilariously voiced by Kevin Hart. Snowball leads a sewer-based revolt of abandoned pets, from crocodiles to sea monkeys. The contrast of Hart's bombast and C.K.'s sigh-speak is terrific.
Max and Duke's disappearance ignites a dog hunt by neighboring pets. Perky puffball Gidget (Jenny Slate) has a crush on Max. Fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell) and a dimwit bulldog (Bobby Moynihan) join a detour to Brooklyn, where an aged, paralyzed beagle (Dana Carvey) has advice.
Comedy is compounded by ingenious details Renaud and Cheney cram into this world, set against a quasi-photorealistic New York. Everything around these talking critters seems so possible that it rubs off on the wildest fantasies; a forboding neighborhood of ratty stray cats, Max's duel with Snowball's hench-snake, a Busby Berkeley-style musical hallucination in a sausage factory.
Each vocal performance is wonderful, none more than Albert Brooks as Tiberius, a hungry hawk whose sinister first meeting with Gidget is the closest The Secret Life of Pets comes to Pixar brilliance. This role and Marlin in Finding Dory makes Brooks the summer's most valuable voice.
Preceding the feature is Mower Minions, a short starring the breakout stars from Despicable Me, confirming their jabbering silliness works better in small doses. Seeking money for a smoothie blender, the Minions steal lawn care equipment, wreaking havoc in an assisted living facility's yard.
Despite wincing references to Mexican gardeners ("Choppa la grassa?") and doddering seniors, Mower Minions is a peppy, if uninspired start, milking the childish comedy potential of bare butts and dog poop. Ah, summer.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.