Illumination has become a hugely successful animated film studio rivaling both Pixar and DreamWorks for genre dominance over the last few years mostly thanks to the “Despicable Me” franchise. It’s easy to forget though that the studio owns a very impressive record with a very different movie. In 2016 Illumination released “The Secret Life of Pets” which ruled the box office in its opening weekend with the largest debut for an original animated film in domestic box office history, a record that still stands today. It was a smash hit, relatively loved by critics and adored by fans. A sequel was inevitable as Illumination sought to create a new franchise to continue to build the studio’s pedigree (no pun intended). Three years later we have that sequel, “The Secret Life of Pets 2”, which debuted over the weekend to less than half of its predecessor’s opening weekend gross and mixed reviews. I decided to give the film a chance and see if it deserves more attention than it’s been getting or if this is a series that was better left to one film. This is my review of “The Secret Life of Pets 2”.
“The Secret Life of Pets 2”, which I will shorten to “Pets 2” for much of the review, includes several different stories taking place around the same time focusing on different characters from the original film. The first story follows Max (Patton Oswalt replacing Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) as they adjust to a new child in the family named Liam. Max and Duke join their owners on a road trip to the countryside where Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford) who teaches Max how to be a more confident and braver dog and to not be overly protective of Liam. A second story follows Max’s love interest Gidget (Jenny Slate) who attempts to rescue one of Max’s favorite toys from a cat lady’s home, learning from tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell) how to act like a feline in the process to blend in. The third story follows rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) who now believes himself to be a superhero. He is hired by a new character named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to help rescue an abused tiger named Hu from an evil circus owner named Sergei (Nick Kroll). This third story acts as the main conflict of the film tying all three narratives together in the finale.
So, I’ll be honest the original “Pets” movie didn’t exactly stick with me. For a while I even forgot it existed despite its phenomenal box office record. So, when a sequel was announced I was like “oh yeah, that was a thing” and I didn’t exactly mind it because looking back on the first movie while I didn’t find it exactly memorable it was a fun and inspired idea. What do pets do when people aren’t around? It’s a fantastic cliché to turn into a movie. Going into the sequel I was curious how they would push the concept forward but the trailers left me a little lost as to what I should expect. “Pets 2” featured numerous character-centric trailers that presented different stories and I never knew which one to expect as the narrative of the film in general. Come to find out this advertising campaign makes sense because there really are three very different stories taking place in “Pets 2” all at the same time, and here’s where I have my first problem with the movie. It’s WAY too busy. I get that this is a kids movie and the goal is to keep the energy going so that kids can stay invested, but man is there way too much going on throughout this film and the final product suffers as a result.
To its credit “Pets 2” tries really hard to give the most memorable characters from the first film, Max, Gadget, and Snowball, their own adventures but any of these three stories could have made a far superior film all on their own…or heck even a television show. The three narratives each feel like smaller episodes within an overarching world but in the context of a movie, it can make it hard for anyone other than the most innocent and carefree youngsters to sink their teeth into. The sad part is each of the three stories has some fun elements and themes that really embrace the whole “what do animals do while we’re gone” idea. There’s plenty of effective comedy that had me laughing more than I might be proud to admit and I dare say some of these scenes were pretty imaginative. It’s also nice to see a film focus on so many characters and their individual stories especially when there were so many colorful animals that captured fans’ hearts in the first movie.
Snowball, for example, comes to see himself as a superhero, inspired by the obsession his owner has over a television show. This feels like a logical step forward for his character who was a leader with the best of intentions in the original film. Gadget’s story sees her trying to protect and eventually save Max’s favorite toy, playing into her romantic feelings for him and leading to one of the most hilarious moments in the entire movie when she tries to outsmart a group of cats using a red laser pointer. Max and Duke’s story finds them at a farm where Max learns from an elder, more experienced dog named Rooster how to be brave and that the world might be dangerous but experiencing that danger is how you learn. This story uses a pets traditional protective nature over their human child partner as the backdrop for numerous life lessons. All of these stories alone present great ideas and concepts worthy of being explored, but they all feel watered down and rushed to make time for the other two stories in the film. They say the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, but here it’s actually the opposite. Each individual piece has potential but the format used for storytelling here never really allows any of these stories to breath or shine on their own.
There’s a lot of reasons why “Pets 2” shoots itself in the foot by failing to properly balance its numerous stories or focus on just one idea to drive the plot. The first major issue is that it prevents the viewer from fully appreciating any depth or emotional resonance of a scene. There are some neat moments, especially between Max and Rooster, that are there to teach kids a few lessons about the realities of life. Snowball’s adventure even tackles animal cruelty in circuses, an issue that has become a popular social justice movement over the past few years. But every time “Pets 2” offers something for both children and adults to embrace on a deeper level its only mere seconds before it changes to another story or throws us into a loud or comical moment to forcefully keep our attention. This might be nice for parents who want to keep their kids distracted, but it prevents “Pets 2’ from feeling like anything more than mindless, time-wasting entertainment at its core. This also impacts “Pets 2’s” quality as a sequel because sequel movies are supposed to drive the idea forward and help build on the world these characters inhabit. Yes we get to see the countryside instead of the city and it is nice to see the characters evolve a bit, but as a whole “Pets 2” feels like it’s perfectly content leaning on the established popularity of its characters and predecessor rather than truly committing to helping this franchise explore new territory. It doesn’t feel like the spectacular sequel the original deserved. A lot of times it feels like it exists simply because it can.
Even with all that said I can’t call this a bad movie because, in my opinion, it’s not. It’s just underwhelming. On the positive, the voice work is energetic and fun and I’ll even say Patton Oswalt is a superior Max to Louis C.K. while the visuals are stunning and beautiful especially in 3D. It’s definitely a polished and eye-catching movie even if the world feels just a little less immersive than in the first film. The new characters for me were a little hit and miss though. Harrison Ford as Rooster (in his first animated voiceover role) was a really cool addition although I wish he got more screen time while Tiffany Haddish as new character Daisy just didn’t quite jive with me. I didn’t feel like the voice fit the character or her design and while Haddish does an amazing job, as always, it felt more like a gimmick casting than trying to find a voice or performer that really fit the character they were going for. Then there’s the finale which was a lot of fun but man does it lean on some pretty heavy clichés including a bland, underdeveloped and forgettable Russian-esque villain and yet ANOTHER cinematic battle on a train. It ends up being an interesting way to tie together all three stories and yet it still feels all too familiar. In fact I think a lot of the issues with the finale can also sum up this movie in a nutshell. It’s fun and enjoyable to an extent but all too familiar, lacking enough substance or focus to stand on its own two feet with only glimpses of the imagination explored in its predecessor to help justify its existence.
In the grand scheme of things “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a perfectly harmless and entertaining animated film that serves well to distract children or fans of the original for its short 1.5-hour run. In a lot of ways it’s a pretty basic sequel that leans a little too heavily on the popularity of its characters without taking any major risks to drive the plot or franchise in anywhere close to a new direction. It does enough to satisfy where it needs to and I’ve seen a lot worse from more relevant franchises than what we get here. We still get some fun interpretations of pet-themed clichés associated as we explore what goes on when the owners aren’t looking and there are some important themes spread throughout the three-part narrative, but the unwillingness to properly focus on one story or the inability to properly blend the three stories going on at the same time does take away from the overall impact this movie could have had. Any one of its three individual narratives could have made for a great idea, but together they water down the potential this sequel really had and make the whole experience very busy and sadly very sloppy. Again though, it’s harmless fun that does just enough to be a passable waste of time. If you enjoyed the original this visually stunning sequel will probably suffice. But if you’re looking for a little more depth, weight or even quality storytelling in your animated features “Pets 2” will probably barely entertain at best.