Movie Review: ‘THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2’ a frantic sequel that needs basic obedience

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James C. Clay // Film Critic 

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2

Rated PG, 86 minutes.
Director: Chris Renaud, Jonathan Del Val
Cast: Patton Oswalt, Jenny Slate, Harrison Ford, Eric Stonestreet, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart

There’s an inherent cuteness to THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS films that other live-action dog-centric properties can’t quite capture. Despite being tethered to animation, the pets portrayed in THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS films have an authenticity to their personalities and actions. Perhaps it’s because the creators of the franchise, Chris Renaud and Chris Meledandri, are focused on making their film from the perspective of how pet parents see their furry little buddies.

Despite a level of cuteness and effervescent character designs, THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 far too often loses its sense of wonder for hijinks that play to the cheap seats. Rather than staying committed to the more heartfelt moments, it runs wild. No matter how big his eyes and teeth may be, there’s only so much mileage that can be achieved with a bunny wearing a superhero costume.

The film runs a bit frantic at only 86 minutes and has three stories driving the narrative before they all collide in a finale that leaves much to be desired. In the story, we pick up with the cutest little Jack Russell this side of Pixar, Max (now being more appropriately voiced by Patton Oswalt after Louie C.K. was fired) who has acclimated to life with Duke (Eric Stonestreet), the big slobbery dog who went from bully to friend. Max is going through some major anxiety that’s manifesting itself in a nasty scratching habit as his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) is bringing a child into their household.

Max (Patton Oswalt) with Rooster (Harrison Ford) in ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2.’ Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Through voiceover, Max so sweetly ruminates on his existence and what it’s like to see the world through his perspective. Oswalt is the perfect fit to voice this little dog as we hear complex thoughts on being afraid of the dangers of the world.

The next story focuses on the exploits of Chloe (Jenny Slate), the Pomeranian tasked with taking care of Max’s favorite toy “busy bee” while he’s out camping on the farm. Max is forced to overcome his fears when he encounters a Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster (voiced in a far too small of a role by Harrison Ford). The duo has a dynamic that’s complimentary of each other, but the film focuses too hard on shaming Max for his anxieties rather than allowing him to overcome his fears in an organic way.

The final story is where the film finally goes off the rails. In a baffling move, Max is put in the backseat of the narrative and we pick up with scene-stealer from the first film Snowball (Kevin Hart, who is problematic in his own right), the bunny with a megaphone for a mouth as he’s caught up in his role-playing with his own as a superhero. He teams up with Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a Shih-Tzu with a penchant for karate and being a good girl as they are attempting to free a white tiger from an evil circus owner (played by Nick Kroll). Hart’s role was understandably broadened from the first film, but his hyperactive bunny schtick is best used in pellet-sized doses.

Each story belongs in a different film; it’s as if the directors were throwing three different genres at the audience to see which characters stick. THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 is at its strongest when it focuses on how our lives as humans relate to our pets perception of the world. Sacrificing that in service of manic pratfalls inflates the film into left field plots that will have adults eyes glazing over by the third act.

There are many elements to enjoy within THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2, even if it’s slightly less engaging than its predecessor. Having more focus on the pets’ domestic life – and even spending more time with Max, Duke and Rooster on the farm – brings in a welcome change to the franchise. However, this is a film that promises life lessons from the voice of our pets. What we get in return is just another spastic trip down the kiddie aisle.

Grade: C

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 opens nationwide on Friday (6/7).