Movie review: Promising 'Secret Life of Pets' ends up getting a little too lost

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

It's kind of amazing with all the anthropomorphizing that goes on in animated movies that there hasn't been a movie with the exact premise of "The Secret Life of Pets" before now. And it's a shame that premise wasn't better executed.

Go back to the simple brilliance of Pixar's "Toy Story" - your toys have a life of their own when you aren't around, but also love to be played with - and you'll find some of the inspiration here. It's a neat idea and there's a lot of fun to be had, but "Secret Life" doesn't quite grab an audience the way it should.

Over the strains of Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" - seriously, now many movies can use that in the opening titles? - we zoom into the city to see it through the eyes of the pets of New York, specifically a terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.). Max met his "roommate" Katie (Ellie Kemper) and is now "the luckiest dog in New York."

Enter Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a massive brown fuzzball of a mutt that Katie brings home, much to the dismay of Max. This rivalry for their owner's attention takes us into a world where pets of New York just chill together while their owners are at work.

This movie works best when it is in that fun realm revealing the thoughts and motivations driving the pets (hint: food and affection play key roles). It works less well when it moves on to the larger adventure as Max and Duke get lost and find themselves at odds with a militant group of animals who hate humans and oppose domestication, led by the angriest fluffy bunny you've ever met (Kevin Hart).

There's no shortness of cuteness - the creators of "Despicable Me" are behind this, after all -and I'm sure the kiddos will have a lot of fun.

But the movie loses its heart and its focus somewhere in the adventure, and the schism between the pets and their animal foes gets, well, a little unduly dark. I didn't expect a bunny rabbit to be advocating the murder of humans.

And that's a shame, because what bookends that has a lot of heart and should have stayed the focus.

"The Secret Life of Pets"

Opens Thursday

2 ½ stars