The middle-of-the-pack The Secret Life of Pets was digimation specialists Illuminations trying to prove there was more to them than those minions, and the last prominent gig for comedian Louis CK before allegations emerged that suggested he was unsuited for feature-film employment, or indeed any kind of communal activity. (For the upcoming sequel, he has been replaced by the cuddlier Patton Oswalt.) Its workable elevator pitch boils down to "What if Toy Story, but with domesticated animals?": we're introduced to the pets of one New York City apartment block just as their human keepers are departing for work, then left to watch an unlikely alliance forming between incumbent, CK-voiced hound Max and incoming alpha dog Duke, voiced by Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet. Attention has clearly been paid to the ways animals behave both around their owners and when they think they're not being watched; if The Secret Life of Pets isn't in the Ghibli league of observational animation, it at least offers the moderate fun of watching computerised cats giving celebrity voice to their thoughts as they get distracted by laserbeams or soft toys stuck to their paws.
As, however, signalled by the soundtrack's unexpected and thoroughly unnecessary revival of "Stayin' Alive" by N-Trance featuring Ricardo Da Force (the Pets equivalent of Madagascar's "I Like to Move It" by Reel 2 Reel featuring the Mad Stuntman), digimation has abandoned art in favour of pursuing something more immediately saleable. Pets is one of an increasing number of titles content just to function as zippy, colourful, throwaway distraction; it's machine-like in the manner it contrives a speedy setpiece every seven or eight minutes, at every turn hoping that movement will be an adequate substitute for ingenuity or wit. Though we're offered the novelty of Kevin Hart voicing a leporine revolutionary (the franchise's breakthrough star, if the pre-teen focus groups are anything to go by) and the usually mild-mannered Albert Brooks as a hawk, these voice artists have all been funnier with the leash of a U rating off. It is colourful, walking everybody through a soft-edged vision of Manhattan, its skyline fitted with childproofed skyscrapers; and Duke's vision of a meatpacking factory is a late flourish worthy of our loonier 'toons - even though we're aware the silly sausages singing along to bangers from the Grease soundtrack are just meatier Minions. There is, in the main, even less of substance here for accompanying adults than there was in the Despicable Mes - it's all about the little critters - but other channels will be offering worse ways of keeping yours chuckling on damp Bank Holiday afternoons.
The Secret Life of Pets is available on DVD through Universal; a sequel opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.