Secret Life of Pets 2 Review

It took the Walt Disney Company only five years after its first fully animated feature film to release what they dubbed a “package” film: a series of shorts strung together to feature length. In Disney’s case, package films were a necessity to ensure that they could make money during the war-torn 1940s. For Illumination Entertainment, the animation unit based in France that’s responsible for such feature-length mediocrities as Despicable Me and Sing, it took them nearly a decade to make their first package film.

And here, too, necessity no doubt drove Illumination to make its first package effort, because if they couldn’t make a franchise outside of the Minion-verse, then they’d have no film this year. Don’t let the title fool you. Yes, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is a sequel to the 2016 hit, but this new picture is three mostly separate stories that could just as easily function as episodes of a TV show as they do as pieces of an aggressively inconsequential feature film.

Lead dog Max (voiced now by Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C.K. after the latter’s sexual assault scandal) lives a comfortable enough life with his fellow dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and their owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). That is, until Katie meets and falls in love with a guy, they get married, and they have a kid. While Max is initially repellent to baby Liam, once the kid gets to be old enough to go to preschool age, the playful pooch becomes so attached that he’s essentially a helicopter parent. (If it seems like this is a lot to process in one paragraph, please note that all of this plot occurs in the opening five minutes.)

When Max goes on a vacation at a nearby farm with his extended family, he gets a lesson in letting go from a gruff dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford), all while his would-be girlfriend Gidget (Jenny Slate) is trying to protect his precious squeaky toy. And also, just so no one gets bored, the loquacious bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) and a new dog (Tiffany Haddish) save a tiger from the circus.

In truth, all three of the stories in The Secret Life of Pets 2 feel haphazardly tossed-off and can be boiled down into an overly simple sentence. Max needs to let go. Gidget needs to save Max’s squeaky toy. Snowball needs to rescue a tiger. The film — its saving grace being its mercifully short 86-minute runtime — barely allows these characters’ stories to intersect. Much of the first 70 minutes has these three leads in their own worlds, with the others completely unaware of their exploits.

Because of the film’s brevity, and its multiple stories, each of them feels maddeningly slight and stuck on the surface. This, of course, is part and parcel with other Illumination Entertainment films: low-budget animated films chock full of pop-culture references, familiar needle drops, famous actors, and high concepts that smack of earlier, better animated stories. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is only truly notable for feeling more like a direct-to-DVD sequel than previous Illumination films did.

The sense of familiarity hovers over the Pets sequel like an inescapable cloud. While recasting Max was both wise and completely necessary, the presence of Patton Oswalt calls to mind his exemplary work in Pixar’s Ratatouille, just one of a number of Pixar films that gets quoted (intentionally or not) here. Max’s over-parenting plight is reflective of storylines in Finding Nemo and Inside Out, and his connection with Rooster calls to mind the down-home connection between Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson in Cars.

And Ford, who sounds as pleased to be in this movie as you might expect, is suitably gruff even if Rooster is, like just about every character here, barely sketched in as a character. It’s worth noting, though, that Max’s friendship with Rooster comes at the expense of the core dynamic of the first film. Anyone who enjoyed the 2016 Pets, and its awfully-similar-to-Toy-Story friendship between Max and Duke will be disappointed. Duke, for whatever reason, has very little screen time or presence in this sequel.

Of course, the comic mileage The Secret Life of Pets 2 has to work with is far removed from character building and development or even comic setpieces. The kind of humor this film has in spades is akin to a comic strip in the local paper that ponders what domesticated animals are thinking when they destroy our shoes, or chase after balls or laser pointers, and so on. Or, even more accurately, the humor of this film is best distilled during the end credits, which feature brief snippets of YouTube videos of kids and pets doing the darnedest things. That’s the level at which The Secret Life of Pets 2 operates.

In that it’s not enough to inspire anger, this sequel is technically an improvement on its predecessor. (The Secret Life of Pets is such a brazen rip-off of Toy Story that it’s mildly shocking that Pixar never sued. And ironically enough, though Albert Brooks appeared in the first Pets, he’s absent in its sequel, which calls Finding Nemo to mind often.) But it would also be accurate to describe this sequel, both in terms of its plot and the impact it leaves behind, the way that Rooster describes a daring mid-film rescue: “Yeah, some stuff happened. Now it’s over.” It’s rare for a movie to so swiftly and with pinpoint precision explain itself, so briefly and so inadvertently. But that’s The Secret Life of Pets 2. Some stuff happened. Now it’s over.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.