Four unfathomably long years ago, so long ago that animation studio Illumination Entertainment didn't much seem like they'd necessarily amount to anything, particularly given that one-third of its output up to that point was the incomprehensibly awful Hop, I remember being impressed by the production design of the studio's Dr. Seuss adaptation The Lorax. Absolutely terrible goddamn movie, you understand - but the look of it was pretty swell. The lines were appropriately Seussian, but reconceived to fit into the three-dimensional space of computer animation, and the colors were a right marvel. After five features released by Illumination in six years, it remained the brightest spark of life in their dull-eyed canon.

Well, they did it again: I like the production design of The Secret Life of Pets. It's by Eric Guillon, who doubles as the character designer - the same role he filled on The Lorax, how about that, and he performed both tasks in Despicable Me 2 and Minions, both of which did indeed have fairly enjoyable '60s-pastiche worlds to play around in (DM2 much more so than Minions). So I think there's a possibility that I've just uncovered the secret genius behind the Illumination throne. At the very least, I have now positively identified the man responsible for almost everything I've genuinely admired in any of the studio's movies.

But as I was saying, the production design in The Secret Life of Pets is pretty appealing. Especially in the early going, when the film consists of several diorama-sized scenes taking place in various apartments in a building somewhere in Manhattan. The building itself looks like a festive doll's house, cherry-red exterior walls with big windows letting us peek inside; the individual apartments are filled with fun shapes in joyous summertime colors, and they overlook an autumnal Central Park that's decked out in candy apple red and tangerine orange. It's like crack for your color receptors: one little glance and all you want to do is stare and stare until your eyes dry out.

There is unfortunately a movie attached to the colors.

The easy slam against The Secret Life of Pets is that it's shameless carbon copy of Toy Story, which is hardly fair. There are at least two scenes stolen from Toy Story 2. It is the tale of two dogs, a little brown and white terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), who has a dog's natural undying devotion and zealous worshipfulness towards his human owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), and believes them to be uniquely connected among soulmates. This makes it acutely painful when she brings home another dog one day after work, the giant brown hairball Duke (Eric Stonestreet), some kind of apparent Newfoundland mix. The two dogs are assholes who hate each other, and their increasingly hostile attempts to win Katie's solitary affection leads to both of them ending lost on the streets during a routine walk. There ensues a picaresque as they traverse the city, the sewers, and a Brooklyn sausage factory, all trying to make it home. Meanwhile, the hyper Pomeranian who lives across the alley and loves Max, Gidget (Jenny Slate) is spearheading a rescue mission of several pets from the apartment building to find Max and bring him home. These include Mel the pug (Bobby Moynihan), Buddy the dachshund (Hannibal Buress), Chloe the cat (Lake Bell), Tiberius the uncomfortably hungry hawk (Albert Brooks), Norman the guinea pig (co-director Chris Renaud, one of Illumination's brain trust), and Sweet Pea the parakeet who is alone among the animals in this universe in being incapable of speech (its peeps are, however, provided by Tara Strong - what the hell, how did a professional voice actor stumble her way into this cast?).

In fairness, The Secret Life of Pets is not "bad". It is enormously uninspired. The ad campaign that has been completely inescapable for months has promised a one-joke exercise in pandering to pet owners ("see, the cartoon doggie acts like a real doggie") with content at least marginally less inspired than the pictures of adorable animals with grammatically broken captions which were, alongside pornography, the primary fuel of the internet in the 2000s. That's still better than the movie we actually get, which is that for only the first five or ten minutes (virtually every joke about the actual things pets do when we're not around showed up in at least one of the I've forgotten how many trailers), and is afterwards a desultory chase movie like every other animated kids' movie produced in the last 15 years (including 2016's second "animals drive a truck" finale). Occasionally, it wakes up for a bit of old-school slapstick that works fairly well, and at one point, it grinds to a halt for an extended fantasy sequence about singing frankfurters that's so surreal in ways that nothing else in the movie even gestures towards, that I am incapable of resisting its warped charm.

The comedy, however, is resolutely limited, mostly revolving around giving each character a solitary personality trait - Chloe is bored, Gidget is peppy, Tiberius is a carnivore, Mel is Dug from Up - and deploying one incredibly obvious joke per scene playing on that trait. At least once or twice, it switches things up and stages action to an obvious pop song choice: Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" accompanies the opening montage of Max's pre-Duke life with Katie, and it's almost restful, it's so patently mindless.

At times the film threatens to become interesting: during their adventures, Max and Duke fall in with a subterranean resistance cell of human-hating ex-pets led by psychopathic rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart). There's the stuff of an entire movie in there, and the bad pets include some of the film's most inspired character designs - I particularly love the UPA-ish angular lines of the alligators, though they'd probably be better in 2-D - and most unexpected lines and jokes. Plus, Hart is, along with Slate, just about the only member of the cast who sounds like he had a good time recording his dialogue. But sure enough, after maybe his third scene, Snowball is just "cute bunny says violent things", and that's a well that dries up pretty quickly.

Still, it's really not a charmless movie, only a predictable, sitcommy one that's designed for parents to muscle through while the kids laugh aimlessly. Except for Max and Duke. They are terrible characters. Or rather, they are great characters if this is supposed to be an animated equivalent of one of those '70s chamber dramas about masculinity in free-fall, like Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky. And I find Mikey and Nicky fascinating and I would love to see a thoughtful cartoon version of it, but I think The Secret Life of Pets gets there quite accidentally, and by "accidentally" I of course mean "because the screenwriters were bad a their jobs". These are not sympathetic characters: they are bitter, sniping, cruel; Max tries to blackmail Duke, Duke threatens violence against Max, and their hatred is the most psychologically convincing element in the entire movie. In theory, the film should be about their learning to support each other and work together, all Woody & Buzz-like; this development happens using sleight-of-hand, with the film distracting us long enough with a chase setpiece involving a giant snake and sewers that it simply assumes, after it's all done, that they did their bonding somewhere in there. The worse problem is that they're unpleasant to be around: it's not very interesting to see how they survive their predicaments, since they're both so damn unsympathetic, and it's even harder to root for Gidget's rescue attempts, since it's not hard to suppose she'd be better off without Max and her ridiculous, one-note crush on him.

The whole thing is just vacuous - clearly the kind of vacuous that appeals to enormous portions of the movie-going public, and good for them. I find nothing amusing nor appealing in the film, and absolutely not even the ghost of anything emotionally resonant, just a lot of clattering stock ingredients reassembled in the laziest way possible. It looks nice, and the characters have a certain amount of old-school rubberiness in their faces and bodies, even if there's not much done with them in the shackles of 3-D. Also, we've now finally crossed that Rubicon where animated children's movies are prepared to spend real time and effort to give their cartoon cat a visible anus. How about that!