The efficient creative forces at Illumination are nothing short of wizardly outliers in the animation game. Their films have a true legion of fans, and the profits to prove their work; not all of them could be considered masterpieces or legendary classics of this decade. They settle well as rainy day matinee viewings with youngsters in tow, while still keeping an open mind for unexpected ingenuity. The Secret Life of Pets 2, a followup to the 2016 blockbuster, and already their tenth film overall, continues that trend of satisfactory winners made from low stakes, high concept storytelling and a voice cast dedicated to their characters. Solid formula at its best, why feel the desire to mess with that flow?
The original Pets played exactly how many of us expected, like a Toy Story involving our furry four-legged companions, and the madcap adventures they stumble onto while their human owners are away on a given day. For quirky terrier Max (Patton Oswalt), he always felt the closest bond to his human, Katie (Ellie Kemper). Even after building a lasting brotherhood with fellow adoptee Duke (Eric Stonestreet), that always remained constant. That is until it grew to include a boyfriend for Katie, and then a toddler named Liam (Henry Lynch). Three years go by in the blink of an eye, the kid is Max’s everything, trying to overprotect him from the dangers of the wider world, even if he can be slightly cowardly, fearful of the future. It’s a trait he must reluctantly try to identify and overcome while on a weekend getaway out of Manhattan and into, with bad clichés considered, a farm upstate.
Meanwhile, back home, the rest of the ensemble cast don’t sit idle for long; they’re all offered a little something to play with. Essentially, it’s a Modern Family episode with animated pets. The layered sitcom plot approach, I’d normally be against; for such a lovable group of characters, I can let slide this once, despite its weaknesses. For the b-plot, there’s the cuddly poodle Gidget (an energetically adorable Jenny Slate), whom Max trusts to watch over his favorite squeaky toy while away. Shenanigans occur to where she must undergo a crude form of hypnotic feline therapy, with the sarcastic Chloe (Lake Bell) assisting in the affluent canine’s training to successfully infiltrate a sacred cat cult, a better way to describe the den of an old lady with too many felines. Then, there’s the cutesy bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), comfortable in a new home with owner Molly (Kiely Renaud). No longer an anti-human, anti-companionship wild creature, he sees himself more like a costumed superhero eager to pay the affection forward. Imaginative games become reality when a sassy Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) enlists the support of the small rabbit to rescue a rare tiger cub from the captive hands of a stereotypically snide circus ringleader (Nick Kroll).
Illumination vets Chris Renaud, Jonathan del Val, and Brian Lynch still manage to up the ante, making the most of a delicate balancing act most films with a similar story setup can’t always get right. Television writers seem to make it so much easier, laying one subplot on top of one another. Without the electric wit and cartoony writing of Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the missing element here that completed the original Pets, some of the more notable blips are tougher to look past. Kroll’s villain character lends so little to the story, his presence just screams an unnecessary annoyance. Thankfully, it’s not enough to 100% derail Daisy and Snowball’s story, the two building a great friendship, Hart and Haddish proving a carefully placed match delivering some of the stronger one-liners. And it even pulls back in the sagely Pops (Dana Carvey), a true scene-stealer from the original who was impossible not to like. Of course, the whole idea about Gidget and Chloe buddying up, that could only be stretched so far, despite both Bell and Slate really championing an enjoyable segment with some memorable runaway gags, even if they lack in consistent substance. Perhaps it would’ve shown better effectiveness as a standalone short after the fact without being otherwise shoehorned in. It’s the leanest and weakest of the three overall, but I knew had more been written in for the two I’d have found it as crucial and as balanced as what’s happening back on the farm.
Max and Duke’s A-plot is perhaps the strongest of the three, and there were times where I felt we weren’t cutting back to them enough. Oswalt’s voice is very dialed in for animated comedy; he’s proven that many times over the years and his taking over for the embattled Louis C.K. was a very grown-up decision that indirectly aids in the terrier’s character development. And his connection with Rooster, the hotshot, griseled, no-nonsense granddad of the farm (Harrison Ford making his animated feature debut, and it took him long enough), that’ll easily stick with me longest in the memory. His empathic, yet serious approach to life, the best reward that only gives Max his last needed bit of support and drives the ultimate lesson home.
Despite a lot of the film really living up to the strengths its predecessor built most of the time, The Secret Life of Pets 2 eventually runs out of steam, not quite landing proficiently on its feet for the climax and resolution. For all its ingenuity, its charm, its bursts of positivity that its target audience will most appreciate to the point of overarching giggles, there’s still so little in play that it tires itself out at the very end, if not minutes before. The biggest regret, I felt, could’ve been that the stories themselves should have been more firmly defined, the content treated more the way one would for a proper anthology film. In return, that balance could’ve been better emphasized. Between installments, our sequel sees a certainly marginal improvement in spots, but taking a step back in others, yet not to complete stagnation. Much like the original, this one will grow on me. The hand-holders will love it, the parents will find it best to keep their expectations a little lower, everyone else who dug it the first time around, I suppose your mileage will vary. It’ll be best to keep an open mind, not everything works. When it does, however, it’s a rip-roaring ride deserving of its lofty spot in the Illumination canon. And in a group of films that don’t always hit the right marks so accurately, that’s saying something very profound. (3/5 horns up)
The Secret Life of Pets 2 opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for some action and rude humor; 85 minutes.