The Secret Life of Pets 2
Illlumination’s The Secret Life of Pets (2016) was an unexpected charmer, one of the best original animated movies of the decade, on a level with Pixar. If you’re a fan of animation — and pets — and you haven’t seen it, put it at the top of your streaming rental list.
You definitely need to know the Secret Life world before you see The Secret Life of Pets 2, which is like one of those “very special” episodes from late 20th century sitcoms, when Lucy goes to Hollywood or The Brady Bunch goes to Hawaii — or Modern Family goes to Australia, for that matter. It’s a fun trip with beloved characters, but it only makes sense if you know what they’ve already been through.
Max the Jack Russell terrier (now voiced by Patton Oswald, replacing Louis CK) and his New York apartment family — now including a husband and baby, as well as giant furry mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet) — head to a farm for the best of this movie’s three parallel story lines. Back in the city, reformed rebel bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), teams up with Daisy, a tough-girl puppy (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a white tiger from a sadistic Russian circus owner. It’s an adventure as over-the-top silly as it sounds but with occasionally hilarious set pieces, such as the first battle with the circus wolves.
The third and least developed plot line is a comic riff that has fluffy pup Gidget (Jenny Slate) and the remaining canine supporting cast from the original film training to invade a cat lady’s apartment, disguised as felines.
The first movie’s charming premise — revealing what pets do while their owners are at work — is largely discarded, but there are flashes of similar brilliance. The best of these is the introduction of farm dog Rooster, voiced by a perfectly gruff Harrison Ford. He decides to force Max to toughen up, and their adventure to save a lost sheep is one of the movie’s most gripping sequences (and best enjoyed with 3D glasses).
The episodic structure means the storytelling is uneven, but the voice work and the animation (done in Illumination’s French studio) remain top-notch. The farm animals are quaintly imagined and make for some fresh fun, and the many cat jokes are nicely executed.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is directed by Chris Renaud (Despicable Me, The Lorax), who also did the original, working with co-director Jonathan del Val. It was written by Brian Lynch, who wrote the first movie as well as Minions — so Illumination has their A-game filmmakers on the job. The result is endearing and consistently funny, even if the James Bond-like finale seems more Nut Job than Secret Life.
At 86 minutes, jam-packed with gags and cute animals, it’s a perfect choice for family viewing, with plenty to divert viewers of all ages. But unless the Illumination brain trust can take this mini franchise back to the realm of its original premise, maybe this should be our last visit with Max and friends.
Grade: B. Rated PG. Starts June 7 at the AMC River HIlls, Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grande.