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'The Secret Life of Pets' film review.

Summary: Animated film's humour is, like a dog whistle, subjective

Image Credit: Universal Pictures Washington Post

The Secret Life of Pets is like how I imagine dog food tastes: blandly palatable, but apparently containing some mysterious ingredient with an appeal that lies beyond my species. Though others at a recent screening were certainly gobbling up the animated, animal-centric comedy's kibble of one-liners and sight gags, the film's humour remained largely imperceptible to me.

I repeat: largely.

Kevin Hart provides the voice of the film's villain, a manic, maniacal white bunny named Snowball, and he is, as you might expect, hilarious. Every minute the character is on-screen is a demented joy, and every minute he is not is, well, not.

Snowball figures in the story thus: When the rivalry between a dutiful terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) and his slobbering new mutt of a housemate, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), spills out of their cosy apartment and into the street, the two dogs go missing, falling afoul of Snowball - a former magician's rabbit relegated to the trash - and his subterranean gang of unwanted, undomesticated animals. Called the Flushed Pets, Snowball's crew includes an alligator (presumably dumped down the toilet once it got too big) and a pig once used for inking practice in a tattoo parlour. With their irrational anger directed not at society, but at animals that have found human companionship - "leash lovers", in Snowball's spit-flecked parlance - the outcasts chase after Max and Duke, who are simultaneously being sought by a menagerie of their friends, led by a Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has a crush on Max.

And that, as they say, is that. Including a subplot involving animal control officers, the movie is essentially one long chase sequence, which itself is merely a pretext for a string of hit-or-miss jokes. When one of a bowl of Sea-Monkeys - weird-looking brine shrimp, a novelty pet sold from the back of comic books during the Cold War - cracks that, "It's not our fault we don't look like the ad," you could have heard crickets chirping. There's plenty of humour in the film that only a five-year-old would appreciate. (Poop jokes, anyone?) But I'm not sure that viewers under 50 will get the Sea-Monkeys reference.

A few bits are more successful, including a surreal set piece in which Max and Duke, who have wandered into a hot dog factory, imagine an elaborate musical number featuring dancing wieners: We Go Together from Grease , as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley. It's nutty, and has nothing to do with anything, other than the way dogs' minds work.

Speaking of which, there's precious little of that, other than a recurring gag about how easily dogs are distracted. (It was funnier in Up .) And the theme of human mistreatment of animals is no more than a whiff here. Why couldn't the film have found a way to be both relevant and funny, a la Zootopia ?

As for the voice talent, with the exception of C.K., whose put-upon comedic persona is a good fit for Max, and Hart, whose Snowball seems to be running on a litre of sugary soda and adrenalin, the characters sound pretty nondescript. Stonestreet is virtually unidentifiable, and several other actors - Lake Bell as a cat, Bobby Moynihan as a pug, Hannibal Burress as a dachshund - are wasted.

The Secret Life of Pets comes from Illumination Entertainment, which brought you Despicable Me and Minions . Its signature exaggerated animation style - spindly legs, oversized torsos - is on display, and occasionally inspired. But the humour is generic. And the film's most obvious comparison - it's been called a Toy Story with animals - only points up the one thing Pets lacks, and that any animal lover will tell you their furred and feathered friends have, in spades: personality.

Gulf News Staff Report Robert Lloyd

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Aug 13, 2016
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