'The Secret Life of Pets'
Directors:
Chris Renaud, Yarrow Chesney
Voices of: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Just like a pet that gets antsy and tears up the apartment when you're out, “The Secret Life of Pets” has a destructive streak. It concerns a coterie of pets (dogs, cats, reptiles, a hawk) who band together to find their terrier friend Max (voice of Louis C.K.) and his new roommate Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who are trying to get home in the labyrinthine city. On their misadventures, the pets meet a gang of virulent sewer-dwelling animals who want to eviscerate humanity. (As the manic bunny Snowball, Kevin Hart really commits.) They hijack buses and cause massive car crashes on the Brooklyn Bridge, and occasionally they pee on the floor. 

The first 20 or so minutes are rough/ruff going for adults. We meet the owners and pets (notably Lake Bell as a chubby Tabby cat and Jenny Slate as love-struck Pomeranian Gidget), and directors Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”) and Yarrow Chesney establish that the movie will be relentlessly fast and loud. There's barking, blathering, a bombastic (but sometimes lovely) score by Alexandre Desplat, and so much screaming. But “Pets” gets pretty good when it gets really weird, starting with a scene of feral cats descending into an alley, led by Steve Coogan's mangy limey cat with bulbous, acid-colored eyes and pointy ears perforated by battle wounds. 

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The tone veers from silly, bland kids’ stuff to jarring action scenes and a violent, almost bleak sense of humor. (A monstrous snake is crushed three times and at one point erupts in flames, like something out of a “Monty Python” skit.) Moments of ridiculous action are deadened by way too many stale, slapstick gags. Some recurring jokes (a fallen sewer soldier named Ricky we only hear about, vaguely) reward adults, while jokes about Brooklyn and hipsters feel lazy, tossed in for parents who occasionally read the Sunday Times and only have a vague idea of millennial parlance.

The character designs are decent and the swirling water and looming city skyline are gorgeous, but something about “Pets” feels overly familiar. Louis C.K. doesn't work — his comedic brilliance relies on underselling, delivering with distinct cadences, rhythms, word choice. That makes him an ineffective choice for a tiny dog in a kid's movie.  

The highlight involves a bizarre jaunt into a wiener factory, with its assembly lines of anthropomorphic sausages singing and dancing to “Grease” and being eaten alive. It's very French. 

Follow Greg Cwik on Twitter @GregCwik1