I’ll fully admit, I haven’t revisited or even thought about the first Secret Life of Pets film since it was released three years ago. I have a vague recollection that it was a pleasant musing on what pets do when their owners leave the house, and they’re able to roam their own home as well as the homes of other people with animal companions who, in this case, happen to live in the same apartment complex. The major characters were a terrier named Max (now voiced by by Patton Oswalt, after Louis C.K. was mysteriously booted from the role), his fellow dog friend Duke (Eric Stonestreet), both of whom live with owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), as well as a hyper-kinetic bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart, in what might be his funniest performance), who lives in another unit.
For this go-around, there are essentially three separate plots going on simultaneously that only come together at the very end. First is Max’s grappling with a couple of new human faces in Katie’s life—boyfriend/husband Chuck (Pete Holmes) and eventually their baby boy. Just when Max begins to get used to having the toddler around, he starts getting overly protective and neurotic about leaving the kid’s side. The family (and the two dogs) go to visit Katie’s uncle in the country and before long Max is confronted with the farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford), who grumbles a great deal and attempts to teach Max not to be afraid of every little thing.
Meanwhile, Max’s dog friend Gidget (Jenny Slate) has been charged with protecting Max’s favorite squeaky toy, and she immediately loses it in the apartment of an old lady who has about 100 cats living with her. She turns to a cat friend (Lake Bell) to teach her to pass as a cat, and the experience ends up changing her life. The most action-packed of the three stories involves Snowball helping out a dog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a white tiger named Hu from a visiting circus, operated by the villainous Sergei (Nick Kroll) who employs four vicious wolves as guards. Snowball and Daisy must outsmart and outrun the wolves to help the timid Hu escape.
Directed by Chris Renaud (who did the first film, as well as the first two Despicable Me movies and The Lorax), with co-director Jonathan del Val, The Secret Life of Pets 2 seems aimed much more at younger audiences than I remember the first film being. Sure, kids need to be entertained too, but part of the joy of the first film was that it was something like wish-fulfillment for pet owners who often wondered exactly what their pets are up to when they go to work or school for most of the day. This second installment feels more like playtime and broad humor, and less about tapping into a type of communal fantasy about animal behavior. That was more subversive without going tasteless or dark. This latest work is flashy without being substantive, which may sound like a lot for a family film, but I think the first movie accomplished it to a degree.
There’s no shortage of great vocal talent, with Ford really leaning hard into his grumpy-old-man persona (the first time you hear his voice, he’s not using words, just under-his-breath, easily identifiable grumbling). Unfortunately, the usually reliable Oswalt isn’t given the freedom to exercise the skills that make him so funny as both a comedian and actor; instead he mostly sticks to the script and plays it straight, which seems to defeat the purpose of hiring him in the first place. The Secret Life of Pets 2 isn’t a terrible movie, and I have no doubt that kids will indeed like it a great deal. But it’s lacking anything noteworthy or interesting, and it left me feeling uninspired and bored for the most part.
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