WASHINGTON — The best movie premises are often right under our noses.
Pixar’s “Toy Story” (1995) made history by asking: what do our toys do when we leave the room?
Now, “The Secret Life of Pets” asks a similar question: what do our pets do when we’re not around?
Such is the premise of the fifth feature animated film by Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures, co-directed by Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”) and his former production designer Yarrow Cheney with a screenplay co-written by Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (“Minions”).
Set in New York City, “Pets” follows a playful Jack Russell Terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), who can’t understand where his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) goes every day when she leaves for work. He passes the time with his neighboring pet pals Chloe (Lake Bell), Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Buddy (Hannibal Buress), Sweet Pea (Tara Strong) and Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has the hots for Max.
But this daily routine is suddenly interrupted when Katie adopts a giant stray Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who barges into the home and romps around like he owns the place. An “alpha dog” rivalry ensues, sending Max and Duke out of the apartment on a Manhattan adventure.
From the start, the most pleasant surprise is how wonderfully “New York” the movie is, romanticizing the Big Apple as a magical urban landscape with sprawling greenery in Central Park and larger-than-life skyscrapers connected by a network of clothes lines and fire escapes — all set to Taylor Swift.
This makes New York native Louis C.K. perfect for the lead, providing the most street cred since Billy Joel sang “Why Should I Worry” in “Oliver & Company” (1988). It may be a few years before kids can watch his genius FX comedy “Louie,” but it’s a fine introduction to one of our most gifted comedians.
While Mr. C.K. is instantly recognizable, it may take you longer to guess the voice of Duke (Eric Stonestreet, “Modern Family”), but the celebrity guessing game has become part of the fun of these animated flicks. Listen for Dana Carvey as a wheelchair-bound dog named Pops and Albert Brooks as a rooftop hawk named Tiberius who’s far more cunning than his clownfish in “Finding Dory” (2016).
Stealing the show, however, is the hilarious Kevin Hart as a sewer-dwelling rabbit named Snowball, who’s built an army of stray animals in a rebellion against the human race. Spitting fire like Chris Rock, Hart recalls the killer bunny in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), appearing cute and cuddly on the outside, while remaining absolutely vicious on the inside. Don’t let those bunny ears fool ya.
While Snowball is a great individual character, he is slightly misused. If there’s something that “Pets” lacks it’s a clear antagonist. At first, the villain appears to be Ozone the Alley Cat (Steve Coogan), whose fellow felines fling intruders around like King Louie’s monkeys in “The Jungle Book” (1967). From there, the heel becomes Snowball and his revolutionary sewer dwellers, before finally settling on the dog catchers, who pop up with frustrating irregularity. Will the real foe please stand up?
This lack of focus is symptomatic of a hyperactive Act Two that tries to do way too much as it zigs and zags across the city, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. There are times we wish the screenwriters would dial it back, instead of throwing every possible obstacle in their way with relentless twists and turns that even include a daydream at a hot dog factory set to “We Go Together” from “Grease” (1978).
Yes, really. Wah-oooh, yeah.
After the appealing trailers of poodles rocking out to heavy metal, we yearn to see more of what our pets do at home when we’re not around. Instead, these domestic antics are all crammed into the first 10 minutes before veering into a high-octane chase across town, at which point the tail wags the dog in a direction that is often way too dark for young kids — especially once we dive down into the sewer.
The cause of this shift in trajectory is, of course, the catalyst of Duke’s arrival, which instantly costs “Pets” some originality points compared to a true trendsetter like “Toy Story.” Indeed, Duke’s arrival into Katie’s apartment is just like Buzz Lightyear’s arrival into Andy’s toy room, causing Max the same kind of jealousy as Woody in their fear of being replaced (minus the tear-jerking Randy Newman).
But while Max & Duke never quite reach the “buddy team” level of Buzz & Woody, their camaraderie is at least on par with Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise singing “You Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down” in “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989). You root for their ultimate friendship, even if you know it’s coming.
In the end, it’s impossible not to find “The Secret Life of Pets” amusing. It may not be exactly what the trailers promised, but the topic is so endearing that it can’t help but tug at your heartstrings. Anyone who’s ever loved a pet will leave with a warm smile and maybe, just maybe, adopt a new best friend.