I fully admit that I was not the biggest fan of The Secret Life of Pets when it came out a couple years ago. What began as an interesting premise – What do your pets do when you’re not home? – quickly turned into 90 minutes of one-note jokes, a completely nonsensical Toy Story ripoff, some serious fetishization of New York City, and an actual advertisement in-film for Illumination’s next movie, the ill-advised on every level Sing.
Suffice to say, I had some misgivings about a potential sequel. Those trepidations got worse when it was announced that the original voice of lead character Max, Louis CK, was being replaced by Patton Oswalt after Louis had his #MeToo moment. Character-specific trailers started coming out, which featured Max with his new vocal cords and a hefty dose of “cone of shame” jokes. Essentially, Illumination announced that it was figuratively and literally neutering itself.
Of course, none of this makes sense for the target audience of the film, i.e. kids. Little children don’t know who either Louis CK or Patton Oswalt are, nor really should they, because personal lives aside, both of these actors make their bones with very adult humor. It’s hilarious, and I’ve been a fan of both men’s work for basically my entire adult life, but this movie’s not for me. For the kids, they’re just going to notice that Max’s voice is different now, and they’re going to ask their parents why, which could potentially lead to some very awkward conversations that I’m guessing parents take their kids to these movies specifically to avoid. Along similar lines, Gidget the Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) is madly in love with Max, and even fantasizes about having babies with him. With Max taking a trip down to Nuts Landing, there’s another conversation parents don’t want to have. [Side note: In this movie, Max is taken to the vet because he has a nervous itch, and he gets the cone “until the scratching stops.” I call bullshit. If it’s just scratching, they can just get a cone from a pet shop or Amazon and use it in conjunction with a flea collar. You don’t take him to the vet for that. If you take the dog to the vet and he comes out with the cone, the immediate thought of the adults in the room is that Max got the big snip. Just sayin’.]
These are all the thoughts that entered my head before I even saw The Secret Life of Pets 2. I will say that, for the most part, those advance concerns really didn’t bother me in the finished product (apart from aforementioned call of bullshit). I will also admit that there were a couple of moments that had me laughing out loud. Finally, I will concede that this film seems to have dealt with some of the major issues of the last one, in that New York is just a place setting this time (apart from an eye roll-inducing, edited down, half-verse and chorus playing of “Empire State of Mind” as the film opens), and that a lot of the plotting is more in line with the idea of “secret,” (although we stretch the definition of the word “pet” to a large degree) than the previous one. But all that said, this still isn’t that good of a movie. My girlfriend loved it, and preempted my review on Facebook by telling everybody I thought it was lame. All I’m saying is that one of the promotional posters has a picture of Max wearing the cone and a sign that says, “Don’t laugh.” Trust me, it wasn’t that hard to obey the command.
Picking up after the first movie, Max and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) are happy in their new lives as brothers, and they love their home with Katie (Ellie Kemper). One day, a young man named Chuck (Pete Holmes) literally stumbles into her life, and quickly they’re married and parents to a baby named Liam (Henry Lynch). Once again I call bullshit, because it is only in animation and TV sitcoms that cute skinny girls fall for fat oafs, of which Chuck certainly qualifies. Anyway, Max narrates that he’s not really into kids, but he is into “this kid,” so he dedicates himself to protecting Liam from literally anything that could harm or embarrass him. The stress leads to the itching, which eventually leads Katie to take him to the Ball Pit, er, I mean veterinarian (the increasingly insane animals in the waiting room are one of the few genuine gut-busting laughs I had in the movie).
After checking in with most of the characters from last time, the movie essentially splits itself in three, giving us different stories that on their own would basically take up the 22 minutes available in a 30-minute TV slot. It’s as if they’re testing the possibility of a Pets cartoon show for the kiddies. Another opportunity to spin off popular characters for further merchandising money? Surely you jest! All kidding aside, it’s arguably the better forum for these characters and stories.
Anyway, there are three distinct stories going on, which the film cuts back and forth between until they all inanely come together in the end. Katie and Chuck take Liam and the dogs to a farm upstate (I wasn’t kidding with the headline) to visit Chuck’s uncle. There, Duke has loads of fun playing with livestock, and he’s essentially ignored for the rest of the picture despite being the primary foil of the last one. Max is super nervous and gets terrorized by a turkey until the intervention of a Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster, played by Harrison Ford, although the character is so grizzled and Ford’s voice so gruff and “manly” that I’m surprised they didn’t get Sam Elliott to do it. Rooster spends his time reluctantly teaching Max to be a bit braver and to not worry about Liam so much.
Back in New York, Max has entrusted Gidget with the care of his favorite chew toy, Busy Bee (it’s a giant rubber bee that squeaks). Why would Busy Bee need looking after, you might ask? Because just like in the last movie, everyone in this fucking building leaves their windows wide the hell open in Manhattan when they’re not home! Anyway, a series of unlucky bounces lands Busy Bee in a heretofore unseen downstairs neighbor’s apartment, home to an old lady with dozens of basically feral cats. Let all the crazy cat lady jokes commence! Anyway, to retrieve Busy Bee, Gidget enlists the help of fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell) to train her in the ways of the feline so that she can infiltrate, rescue, and somehow become worshiped as Queen of all Cats. The moment of Gidget’s “ascension” is actually quite clever, and the payoff joke of her riding a Roomba to glory is a nice touch. Of the three stories, it’s the shortest, but also the strongest, mostly because a lot of extraneous bullshit is tossed aside in favor of tight plotting and solid jokes (apart from a really unfortunate scene involving a litter box).
The third and final plot is sadly the worst. Now domesticated, Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart) loves life with his new owner, a young girl named Molly (Kiely Renaud, presumably the daughter of director and voice of Norman the guinea pig Chris Renaud). Molly likes to dress Snowball up like a superhero, and Snowball has taken the role to heart. When Max leaves, Snowball is approached by a shih-tzu named Daisy (who looks so much like my childhood dog that I nearly got choked up – the design is THAT good), voiced by Tiffany Haddish. She tells Snowball the harrowing tale of riding on a plane and seeing an adolescent, wild, Siberian tiger named Hu (the film earns so many points for not resorting to “Who’s on First?” jokes) in the cargo hold. When they landed, the tiger was taken by a circus master named Sergei (Nick Kroll), who is so obviously evil and Russian that I’m surprised Donald Trump hasn’t colluded with him to get reelected yet. Daisy recruits Snowball to help free the tiger from Sergei and his team of guard wolves.
Now, I have several questions. One, how does Molly know that Snowball is the rabbit’s name? Two, why does she only feed it carrots (the sugar content can make rabbits very sick if they eat too many of them, but thanks for the stereotype, Bugs!)? Three, how does Sergei legally get a tiger into New York City? Four, how does he legally keep four wolves in New York City? Five, how does no one on the entire island of Manhattan notice or do anything about a wild tiger and four wolves roaming the city once Snowball and Daisy free it? I mean, in the last movie the animal control people were on Max and Duke like flies on shit, but when there’s a goddam tiger running around, nothing? Finally, the mission to free the tiger takes a full 24 hours. How does Molly not notice Snowball missing and/or freak out about it?
All those logical inconsistencies aside, the entire plotline is problematic because it’s little more than an excuse for Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish to do some PG-level comedic banter. Just like with Louis CK and Patton Oswalt, I absolutely love their work. They’re beyond hilarious, and their ability to play off each other was one of the few saving graces of Night School last year. But in a kids movie? Once again the target audience has no idea who these people are, nor how their on-screen dynamic normally works, so to them it’s just a bunch of sanitized street talk and a temporary detour to see Pops (Dana Carvey continuing to do his old man voice from his Saturday Night Live days).
All three stories certainly have their moments, from sight gags to exaggerated puppy eyes. And in the end this is all harmless children’s entertainment that attempts to teach a little bit of empathy and a valuable lesson against animal cruelty. The unfortunate part is that none of the stories really advance the characters at all, and in some cases, it dials them back and contradicts former established traits. Back in the first movie, Snowball was ready to kill humans. He calmed down once he was adopted, which is good, but all of his bravado also disappeared in the two-plus years since the last film (at least that long, given that Katie has to meet, marry, and get impregnated by Chuck, and Liam himself grows up enough to be able to talk and go to pre-school), to the point where he’s basically a coward for half of his story, with Daisy doing all the combat heavy lifting. Also, he somehow forgot everyone’s name, as he refers to Max as “Tiny Dog,” Duke as “Big Dog,” and Gidget as “White Dog.”
Similarly, in the other stories, Gidget is still rubbing her butt on the carpet for Max, even though he’s never once shown her anything resembling romantic affection (and probably can’t now, thanks to his visit to Neuter Dame). She was beyond resourceful last movie, but this time she relies entirely on Chloe to teach her things she should already know from years of being Chloe’s friend. Duke’s basically a non-entity once they get to the farm, Max’s dedication is seen as weakness (a much better version of his story sees him making a new friend in Rooster and the pair appreciating that they come from different walks of life, rather than Rooster training Max in how not to be a wuss), and Buddy and Mel (Hannibal Buress and Bobby Moynihan) only exist for Illumination’s never-ending string of unfunny poop jokes.
I give the film credit for at least trying to branch out and be more than just Illumination’s half-assed version of Toy Story. But in the end, the film actually ends up making a case to end its own existence. These three stories show that this franchise would almost certainly work better as a half-hour cartoon series. Each episode could focus on some subset of the characters, and that way you can have the same no-stakes fun and basically reset the continuity at the end like just about every other animated show. Plus, you can get your money from advertisers and network deals rather than bilking already exhausted parents out of $10 a pop to see this on the big screen.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you have a favorite character in this series, and if so, which one? Do the people in this building seriously not understand that people can just walk up the fire escape and go into their open windows and just rob them of all their shit and kill their pets? Do they seriously not get this concept?!?!?!?! Let me know!