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Fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell), pampered terrier mix Max (Louis C.K.), and excitable pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan) in Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures' "The Secret Life of Pets," a comedy about the lives our pets lead after we leave for work or school each day.

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Secret Life of Pets
Written by
Ken Duario, Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul
Directed by
Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Starring
Voices of Louis C.K., Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart
Genre
Animation
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2016

I knew a dog who could be heard scrambling off the forbidden couch at the sound of a key in the door – so as to be discovered lying innocently on the hallway floor when his master entered the house. What do our urban pets, left alone for hours as we go off to work and school, get up to all day long?

From that slim comic premise, the people behind the satisfyingly zany Despicable Me have now crafted The Secret Life of Pets, an amusing animated adventure full of talking animals that should please both children and their parents.

Max (Louis C.K.) is a much-loved Manhattan pooch who spends his day waiting for his beloved mistress Katie to come home – while occasionally chatting with his adoring neighbour, the fluffy little Gidget (Jenny Slate), sitting on a balcony across the way. One day Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big slobbery hairy guy who threatens to muscle the incumbent out of the way until Max outsmarts him by trashing the place, figuring he can blame it on this new stray.

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When the battling pair give their dog walker the slip, Duke gets his own back and leads Max on a mad chase that winds up in the sewers of New York where they are confronted by the stuff of urban legend. The Flushed Pets are a furious gang of snakes, iguanas and crocodiles whose owners have ditched them. Led by a demonic little bunny (Kevin Hart), they threaten Max and Duke with certain death, until the plucky Gidget rides to the rescue.

The observation of animal behaviour is apt and the animation is consistently imaginative: one of the funniest vignettes features a dachshund who uses the beaters on an electric mixer to give himself a back massage. There are also gloriously vertiginous views of New York including a lovely set piece in an alleyway full of feral cats and fluttering laundry.

Many of the animals are rapidly and cleverly summarized: there is the haughty poodle who turns the classical station to metal the minute his owner is out the door and the captive hawk desperately trying to overcome his temptation to eat the smaller animals, while Hart's off-kilter casting as Snowball, the villainous bunny, works well.

As for the main pair, however, one may be small and short-haired while the other is big and hairy but both are voiced rather similarly by C.K. and Stonestreet as charming operators, smart, funny guys. Neither is sufficiently characterized by either the script or the actor to make him a strong protagonist in a movie that is crowded with characters and incidents. The human aspect of the central relationship, if I may call it that, is only cursorily observed.

Indeed, if children will be entertained by the unwilling roommates' narrow escape from cats, dog catchers and the Flushed Pets, it is the mass of surrounding detail, from the glittering Manhattan skyline and Gidget's sleek modernist pad to the animals' remarkable mastery of domestic technology, that will impress the adults.

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