Review: The Secret Life of Pets 2

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Chris Renaud

Writer: Brian Lynch

Starring: Patton Oswalt, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Haddish, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper, Chris Renaud, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Harrison Ford

Genre: Comedy, Animation

Rating: PG

Most other animation studios in the mainstream have to spend their time in every outing proving that they’re just as good as they were in their heyday. Pixar struggles to the point of desperation to make the lightning of Toy Story to strike twice (stay tuned). Disney is more successfully conjuring much of their 90s magic and bringing that to the ready to some degree. DreamWorks had their day in the sun once briefly with Shrek and once again for longer with How to Train Your Dragon, but as it stands, both of those projects are now closed.

Illumination, by contrast, seems to be struggling to prove the value of their very existence.  At present, they’re basically coasting along on the success of a merchandise brand; one involving impish yellow gremlins who say “banana” in a funny way and speak an odd mixture of babbling and Spanglish. Toyetic trends die out fast, and without that, our friends who gave us Despicable Me will be largely dead to rights. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is a sequel that I don’t think anybody was asking for, and from many angles seems to be a desperate ploy that could offer the studios a few options for their future.  It’s certainly smart from a business perspective.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Slapstick animated comedy, such as cats punching each other for a toy. Two animals throw knives at each other. It’s implied that a circus animal is being mistreated (he cowers; the villain cracks a whip near him). Menacing wolves chase characters, snapping their jaws. Characters are in peril. A fox attacks a dog and is then attacked by another dog. A bad guy is hit by a car. Animal shot out of a cannon. Dog bites a pig’s tail; it reacts in pain. In all instances, no one is really injured. An animal is shot with a dart gun; it goes to sleep. Dog in a rural area hears sounds of nature, is scared. Red Riding Hood story is told (including the getting eaten part). 

Language/Crude Humor: “Pissed” is the strongest instance of language; the rest are mostly insults meant to get a laugh.

Sexual Content: Pet’s owner gets married, has a baby. Gidget is in love with Max; she fantasizes that they’re married.

Drug/Alcohol Use: A cat who says her owner gave her catnip acts high for comic effect.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Some scatological humor.

Positive Content: 

Life is constantly changing; you can either run away from it or run at it. Teamwork is a clear theme; the animals have to work together.

Two female dogs are brave and confident; Gidget goes the extra mile to keep her commitment, and Daisy acts with compassion to save a mistreated animal. A male dog, Max, acts maternally to a human baby. Snowball and Daisy work together to help a tiger.

Review

What even is Illumination? Seriously, what kind of image for themselves are they trying to manufacture? Even in retrospect, their first release Despicable Me is largely indecipherable as a first impression. Over-the-top Bond villain with a heart of gold becomes foster parent? That sounds like a pitch for an 80s sitcom. But of course, all we can remember from that are the funny looking yellow rascals with the overalls and goggles. Is that our fault, or theirs? Or is it both?

After that, the next brilliant maneuver was a weak, dumb, milquetoast adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. What kind of direction were they thinking with that choice? Are they trying to establish themselves as a classics reimagining station now? If so, they’re not doing it very well. There were multiple times throughout that misfire that seemed like feckless visual gags used for filler. In fact, that’s a fitting description for the whole movie.

After revisiting their first outing a couple of times, Illumination then came to us with The Secret Life of Pets in 2016. At this point, it really seemed to me that these guys are still trying to pitch themselves as a good idea. Essentially Toy Story but with animals, the animated sitcom starring Louis C.K. as a mild-mannered terrier suffered from a number of poor choices in both concept and execution. Too many characters with not enough character, hi-jinks that make no sense even in context, crude jokes that hurt rather than help the humor, touching finishes that the movie didn’t earn, rather lazy performances to equally lazy writing…

Let’s just say it wasn’t Zootopia.

Despite my profound screed against the lackluster release, Illumination managed to rake in a staggering high score at the box office with that number, so a sequel we now have. But here again, what these folks are trying to pull is an indecipherable enigma. Initially, it seemed like the same beats from the earlier movie were being retreaded, with Max (Patton Oswalt replacing Louis C.K. for being creepy) having his place in the home supplanted by his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) marrying and bearing a son named Liam (Henry Lynch).

Instead, what we get is Max learning to break out of his comfort zone for the sake of the new addition to the family. We also get returning favorite Gidget the Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) learning how to masquerade as a cat under the tutelage of the obese tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell). We also get a pet-centered rescue romp starring the iconic white bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) and newcomer Daisy the Shih Tzu (Tiffany Haddish). We also get Max having to come to terms with his numerous neuroses while visiting a farm and being taken to task by the no-nonsense sheepdog Rooster (Harrison Ford in his first voiceover role). We also get the elderly basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) running an unofficial puppy daycare and providing temporary shelter for our would-be heroes Snowball and Daisy. We also get me nearly wondering aloud whether I was watching a movie or a screen pitch for at least three different spin-off series. 

Seriously, what WAS that? If your plot is too thin, do you take several equally thin plots and fold them over each other hoping to have something that justifies a feature-length production? Okay, in concept that’s not the worst idea. Nevertheless, it’s still a pretty bad one. A pile of snack bars do not a three-course meal make, no matter how they’re combined or seasoned. Hardly any idea here is allowed to develop very far before we’re shuffled off to the next excursion. It almost feels vaudevillian in a way. Perhaps that was the intention. For whatever reason, audiences seem to be into what Illumination has to offer, even though what that is exactly is somewhat undefined, to put it kindly.

From where I was standing, I can say that there was one small feature to The Secret Life of Pets 2 that I found particularly fetching. Of the multiple plot threads tripping over each other through the runtime, I found the swashbuckling adventures of the rabbit Captain Snowball (Snowball’s heroic alter ego) and the witty Shih Tzu as they seek to liberate a kindly white tiger cub named Hu from the clutches of an unscrupulous circus owner (Nick Kroll) to be the most rewarding. Perhaps my personal bias is creeping through, but what sold me on this thread more than anything was a traditionally animated imaginative segment of the blue-clad bunny engaging in some comical derring-do. It’s funny, charming, dynamic, and easily the visual highlight of the whole viewing. So while I may not be too stoked for the inevitable follow-up to The Secret Life of Pets, I wouldn’t say no to a Captain Snowball flick.

Positives

+ Better characters and characterization + Many plot ideas + Snowball

Negatives

- No plot - Characters are still quite thin - Ineffective and base humor

The Bottom Line

For a studio whose greatest arguable achievement is “zoo and farm animals do American Idol”, this is basically par for the course. With that established, Snowball’s slightly more tolerable than the Minions. At least that much can be said.

 

6.7

Tyrone Barnes

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