The idea that your pet knows more than he lets on is a staple of children’s movies, from 1965’s “That Darn Cat!” to 2001’s “Cats and Dogs.” It’s probably because pets are like children themselves: little beings whose smarts and self-reliance are chronically underestimated by grown-ups. In these movies, much of the fun comes from watching the underdogs, so to speak, put one over on the clueless adults.
Add to that list “The Secret Life of Pets,” a fun, frisky movie about domesticated animals on the loose in New York City. Produced by animation studio Illumination Entertainment with an aspirational eye toward the emotionally resonant narratives of Disney-Pixar, “Pets” boasts a top-notch voice cast, several appealing characters and a heartwarming story about teamwork and friendship (and ownership). It’s the rare example of kid stuff that will please parents as well.
Our hero is Max, a mixed-breed terrier whose friendly voice comes from the usually dyspeptic comedian Louis C.K. Max lives in apartment-bound bliss with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper, briefly), until she throws him for a loop by adopting Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a shaggy brown mutt of uncertain but very large pedigree. The dogs’ struggle for alpha status ends with them accidentally off leash and very far from home.
Dog catchers give chase, but the real villains here are other animals: the Flushed Pets, an underground army of such discarded critters as snakes, rats and sea monkeys (“It’s not our fault we don’t look like the ad!”). Their leader is Snowball, a deceptively adorable bunny with the outraged voice of Kevin Hart. As Max and Duke run afoul of these vengeful animals, Max’s friends — led by the lovelorn Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) — scour the streets on a rescue mission.
After producing several big, loud hits — notably “Despicable Me” and “Minions” — Illumination Entertainment finally pays close attention to nuance, movement and expression in its animation. All the animals have vivid personalities, even peripheral ones like Leonard, a stately poodle who keeps switching his master’s classical playlist to punk-metal. Overall, “The Secret Life of Pets” puts us in a whimsical world where our furry friends get the better of us humans, and we don’t mind a bit.