Max waits for his owner's return while Gidget spies on him from afar in "The Secret Life of Pets."

The Secret Life of Pets is the latest animated film from the outfit Illumination Entertainment, which made the Despicable Me films. Indeed, it shares one of the same directors and two of the same writers as those movies. So that’s what I’m measuring it against when I say it’s the best movie that firm has ever done. It’s not deep, and it’s certainly not as worked out an animal fable as Zootopia, but it’s funny and inoffensive, and I think I’ll be watching it again before I see Finding Dory again.

The story begins with Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a fastidious terrier describing his idyllic relationship with his owner Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper), who lives with him in a Manhattan apartment. Unfortunately, that gets shattered when Katie brings home a rescue dog from the pound, a giant mutt named Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet) who immediately starts throwing his considerable weight around. The two dogs’ bickering gets them separated from their handler at the dog park and captured by animal control, kicking off an odyssey that will take them all the way to Brooklyn and force them to cooperate to get back home.

The main characters are rather boring, which is the biggest shortcoming with this thing. Louis C.K. doesn’t do too badly, but I think his brand of humor might be too grown-up for the part of a worrywart of a dog. Funnier stuff comes from the supporting characters, like a purse dog named Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate) who’s not-so-secretly in love with Max and recruits the pets in her building on a rescue mission. Between this and Zootopia, I think Slate might be even better as a voice actor than as a live actor. Albert Brooks scores as well as an ancient hawk who joins the rescue effort even though he wants to eat all the dogs and cats around him. As he flies out of his rooftop shed to do some recon work, he tells Gidget, “If my owner comes back, just put [my] hood on and pretend you’re me.”


Nothing, though, is as funny as the part where Max and Duke fall into the hands of a sewer-dwelling group of pet-liberating animals led by a cuddly bunny rabbit named Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart), and it’s no coincidence that he shares his name with a character from Animal Farm. Maybe it’s played out to cast an adorable fuzzy animal as a megalomaniacal bad guy — in fact, it was done as recently as Zootopia — but Hart gives the part all he has, whether Snowball is barking out orders to his henchmen or mourning the loss of the scary viper who was his enforcer. (The snake’s accidental death is itself a nice piece of escalating slapstick.) Hart’s manic energy helps propel The Secret Life of Pets into previously undreamed heights for this company.

[box_info]The Secret Life of Pets
Voices by Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, and Kevin Hart. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney. Written by Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch, and Cinco Paul. Rated PG.[/box_info]