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The Secret Life of Pets

D: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney / 87m

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, Michael Beattie

The latest from Illumination Entertainment, the creators of the Minions, The Secret Life of Pets asks that familiar-sounding but rarely asked question: what do our pets get up to when we’re away from home? And the answer seems to be: a lot more fun than we get up to while we’re away. In a multi-storey apartment block that seems built along the lines of the Flatiron Building, it seems that every resident has a pet or two. And each of these pets has their own thing they do each day. Max (Louis C.K.), a terrier, sits in front of the door waiting for his owner to come home again.

But his perfect life with his owner, Katie (Kemper) is destroyed by the arrival of Duke (Stonestreet), a big hairy stray that Katie brings home wth her one day. Soon Max and Duke are at loggerheads, until while out for a walk, they become separated from their dog walker, and end up victimised by a group of feral cats led by Ozone (Coogan). With their collars removed they’re soon picked up by Animal Control. Only a mission by Snowball (Hart) and his gang of “flushed pets” to rescue one of their own sets them free, but at a price that will see Max and Duke being chased by Snowball, and their animal neighbours – led by Pomeranian Gidget (Slate) – setting out on a rescue mission of their own: to bring back Max and Duke safe and sound.

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The plot of The Secret Life of Pets is so slight as to be almost invisible. It’s one long chase movie bookended by convivial scenes of the animals’ home lives, and while there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with this approach, what it does mean is that if the jokes along the way don’t match up to the promises the movie has been making since around this time last year then the movie itself is going to fall flat on its face. Fortunately, the jokes do match up, and the movie contains enough laugh-out-loud-funny moments that the movie can’t help be rewarding – if only on a broad, superficial level. Animal lovers will enjoy this the most, and it’s true that some of the animals’ secret lives do involve some hilarious imagery, but anyone taking a closer look will be dismayed by the way in which the characters behave like stereotypes, and how little they develop over the course of the movie.

But this is mainly about two adversaries learning to let go of their differences and work together, and thus earn equal respect. If it’s a tried and trusted storyline, and it’s been done to death by now, the fact remains that it hasn’t been done by Illumination Entertainment, and they manage to bring a freshness to the tale that helps lift the often banal nature of the narrative. In the hands of directors Renaud and Cheney, the movie is a bright, garish, enjoyable fun ride with a plethora of great sight gags – Buddy the dachshund (Buress) climbing a fire escape is inspired – and a big heart. It’s perfect for children below a certain age (who will love it), but some adults may find it hard going. Nevertheless this is still a lot of fun, and features a performance by Kevin Hart that, for once, is easy on the ears.

Rating: 7/10 – not as engaging as expected but still enjoyable for the most part, The Secret Life of Pets tells its simple story with a great deal of verve but little in the way of imagination or invention; not exactly forgettable, but not exactly memorable either, a situation that could, and should, have been avoided.