Kevin Hart Runs Away With Mediocre "Secret Life Of Pets"

Illumination Entertainment’s colorful, intermittently funny “The Secret Life Of Pets” proves a sufficient diversion for anyone without an actual pet to spend time with. But for pet owners? The movie doesn’t have half the personality of the average hound – or even the most entitled housecat – struggling to approximate the bond between humans and their furry family members. A crazed bunny voiced by stand-up comedian Kevin Hart works in the project’s favor, but it’s not quite enough to raise “Pets” above the animated movie din. And the rest of the star-studded cast evidences yet again that movie stars are no substitute for bona fide voice actors.

One of the movie’s other stand-up comedy superstars, Louis C.K., headlines as a Jack Russell Terrier named Max, part of circus of New York City pets who act fools when their owners leave for the day. The initial scenes between Max and his human Katie (Ellie Kemper) are adorable, but soon Katie is gone, leaving Max to quarrel with his newly rescued roommate, a Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). The rest of the picture is a conglomeration of uninspired chaos, with Max and Duke reluctantly banding together to escape nameless dogcatchers and an outfit of demented ex-pets, led by the aforementioned rabbit, Snowball.

Hart’s first go-round as a voice actor is an excellent one. He imbues Snowball, an exiled magician’s rabbit, with the kind of eccentricity the rest of the film is missing. The character is the movie’s only real wild card, and the actor goes out of his way to make the performance more than just the sound of his own recognizable voice. The same can’t be said of the rest of the cast, from Max’s friends (Jenny Slate, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Hannibal Burress) to a pair of mischievous outcasts (Albert Brooks, Steve Coogan) to Louis C.K.’s central performance. Everyone but Hart is notably low on energy and inspiration, belying the pic’s appealing color palette.

Moreover, the direction of Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney – from a screenplay by Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch, and Cinco Paul – takes no chances, mostly free of the lovably oddball visual choices Renaud made with 2010’s “Despicable Me.” As the characters skitter around Manhattan without any real stakes, it’s hard to feel anything for any of them, even when Duke is given an overly weepy backstory. The end results are more in line with last year’s so-so “Minions,” which was more an exercise in merchandising than feature length film – an approach that’s compounded here. To underline the unimaginative story, the film is stacked with on-the-nose song choices.

“The Secret Life Of Pets” isn’t a debacle. The subject matter is too inherently likable to anyone who’s ever loved a pet and Kevin Hart’s turn is a joy. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is taking its built-in audience for granted, lobbing so many cute animals at us as to block out the ultra-predictable story and lethargic voice performances. If Illumination Entertainment keeps walking this road of 90-minute commercials for plush toys and bed sheets and theme park attractions, they’re going to lose the two things that made them viable in the first place – inspiration and audiences.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 8, 2016
Studio: Universal Pictures, Illumination Entertainment
Director: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Screenwriter: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch
Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Jenny Slate, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks, Steve Coogan, Dana Carvey
MPAA Rating: PG (for action and some rude humor)