The Secret Life of Pets 2 is directed by Chris Renaud and stars the voices of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Hadish, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, and Harrison Ford.
I have, admittedly, a soft spot in my heart for Illumination's The Secret Life of Pets: a film advertised as a top secret, inside scoop of what pets do at home when their owners are away. Sure, the plot ended up being a total copycat of the first Toy Story, but at least the film had enough charming, humorous pet moments to show at least a commitment to making us appreciate why dogs, cats, birds, etc. are such beloved companions. I have no soft spots at all, however, for the 2019 sequel, The Secret Life of Pets 2, most certainly to be the second installment of what will one day be a Secret Life of Pets trilogy, because just about everything now comes in threes. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is about as "meh" of an animated film as you'll find this year, which is better than straight-up mediocrity, although given the standard that Illumination has set for itself with its animated features over the years, the range between mediocre and meh is rather small. What exactly is it then, that makes Secret Life of Pets 2 a "meh" film? The story? The characters? The comedy? It's really a bizarre mixture of everything, although if I were forced to choose one particular part, it would have to be the story.
The story takes place sometime after the events of the first film. Jack Russell terrier Max (Oswalt) and Newfoundland mix Duke's (Stonestreet) owner Katie (Kemper) meets a man named Chuck (Pete Holmes), marries him, and has a son named Liam (Henry Lynch). At first, Max is repulsed by Liam, but he quickly comes to love him, and later starts to be overprotective of him. The family then goes on a road trip out to the city, where Max has trouble adjusting to the new setting. Before they leave, Max assigns white Pomeranian Gidget (Slate) to watch over his favorite Busy Bee toy, but Gidget loses Busy Bee inside an apartment that is rampant with cats. While that's going on, former villain turned superhero bunny Snowball (Hart) teams up with a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Haddish) on a quest to rescue a White tiger cub named Hu from an abusive circus owner named Sergei (Kroll).
There are several frustrating things about this story: first and foremost, it's made up of three separate sub-stories that have almost nothing to do with each other, that is until the third act mashes all three together by force. Secondly, only one of these sub-stories has anything resembling stakes or consequences; the other two just sort of happen with no clear purpose. The Gidget sub-story kind of has stakes: if Gidget doesn't retrieve Max's Busy Bee toy, she will fail him as a friend and blow any hopes of one day being romantically involved with him. Too bad this little nugget is discarded entirely for the sake of the third's act final sequence on a train, thereby rendering the entire story line almost pointless to begin with. Third, it's impossible to guess which of these sub-stories is supposed to have greater priority over the other two. It has to be Max's story because he's the main character, right? It seems that way, at least up until the finale, which is centered around bringing closure to the Snowball-Daisy tiger rescue story line. It's confusing as all hell to figure out how this is all supposed to fit together, and with a mere 86 minute runtime, there's next to no time to figure anything out.
- It pains me when I have to really scrape and claw my way through a movie just to figure out some sort of high point to discuss, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 is absolutely one of those movies where finding something of true substance is a frustrating (and somewhat wasteful) use of my time. There is only one thing I can dig up: Harrison Ford in his first ever voice role as a Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster. If anything, Ford brings an "old guy who knows how everything works" kind of charisma to his role, and it's the only charm to be had from a cast that is basically sleep-walking their way through their performances. I suppose if there's anything else to speak nicely of, the animation is bright, detailed, and cheery, as seems to be the norm for an Illumination film. Solid animation is colorful and artistic, and Illumination is no exception to this.
- The Secret Life of Pets 2 is targeted primarily at children, which is kind of horrifying considering the contempt put on display by the film's story. Trying to juggle three semi-connected stories is one thing. It's another how unorganized the movie is with keeping them all in line, with the blame solely being placed at the feet of the film's ridiculously short attention span. It almost seems deliberate the way the film bounces from one sub-story to the other, and from one stupid joke to another. Illumination clearly believes children can't follow a concept for longer than 11 seconds, so why should the movie bother to do so? Max's storyline starts out as a metaphor for helicopter parents, only to then suddenly switch gears and turn into a life lesson on how the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. You see, it's not the fear for Liam that ends up being important to Max; what ends up being important is the fear he has for himself, because Illumination knows pushing the initial metaphor over the finish line would have taken extra thought and effort.
There's no consistency to any of this. The Secret Life of Pets 2 gets so wrapped up in what it can do at this very moment, that it's completely oblivious to the bridges it burns and the general disregard it shows for its target audience. Children are more than capable of watching colorful animated films full of complex themes that require your attention from start to finish to fully understand. Films like The Secret Life of Pets 2 lead us to think that Illumination doesn't share this same mindset. To them, children need to have something goofy thrown at them every ten seconds to stay engaged, and as long as parents are willing to throw their hard-earned dollars at these movies, why would they ever change?
I don't want to end this review sounding like I'm knocking films that just want to be goofy and have fun. There's nothing wrong with such a movie as long as the comedy is there, and the story is something at least halfway decent. The Secret Life of Pets 2 though, is not a good example to use, because it's an extremely "meh" film that teeters dangerously towards being a mediocre one. Harrison Ford is a bright spot in a talented yet uninspired cast, but aside from that and the generally high quality of the animation, there's hardly anything of substance The Secret Life of Pets 2 has to offer. A metaphor about helicopter parents? Nope. Hilarious jokes that transcend low-bar comedy like fart jokes or bathroom humor? Also nope. What we get instead is a discombobulated story with the attention span of a goldfish, potential payoffs that get scrapped altogether, and an animation studio that is basically telling the world, "we don't need kids to look up more than a few seconds from their devices in order for them to follow along." This is bad practice from an animation studio that thinks it's a lot smarter and more successful than it actually is, and if they keep churning out "meh" films like The Secret Life of Pets 2, well, I pray and hope that children and their parents will have the smarts to put their foot down and say no. Real life pets are more fun than the like of Max and Snowball anyway.
Recommend? No. While the movie is very short, it's rather unsatisfactory viewing.
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