If I had to list the films of 2016 that were unexpected pleasures to watch, there’s no question that The Secret Life of Pets would be there. It was a weird, silly, funny romp featuring a group of domestic animals who have an adventure both above and below the streets of New York City. I enjoyed it, my son enjoyed it, audiences and critics, in general, enjoyed it.
However. It was not a film that was crying out for a sequel. In fact, it tied its ribbon fairly neatly at the end. But this is Hollywood and if something does well, it’s a virtual guarantee that producers will try to get a little bit more blood from any successful property, no matter how big a stone it may be. They do this because it’s easy to work with a known, successful entity, and because even if it’s unasked for, it will often reap similar rewards.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is exactly why this is not always a good idea. Yes, it returns with its familiar, well-voiced cast of characters — anxious dog Max (Patton Oswalt, capably replacing Louis CK); his big, dopey friend Duke (Eric Stonestreet); the hilariously dry cat Chloe (Lake Bell, the best part of the film); and the high-strung Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate). This time, we follow them on three separate adventures: Max and Duke’s family take them on a trip to a farm, where they meet a gruff Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster (Harrison Ford, perfectly cast). At the same time, Gidget must impersonate a cat to infiltrate a house full of near-feral felines to retrieve a toy that Max entrusted to her. Finally, Kevin Hart returns as Snowball the rabbit, now with a superhero complex, who is drafted by a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a tiger cub from a cruel circus owner (Nick Kroll).
It all takes off from there, but it lacks all of the warmth and depth of the first film. Splitting the groups up eliminates a good bit of the camaraderie, and the humor isn’t nearly as sharp this time around. Yes, there are some solid, laugh-out-loud jokes, and my son seemed to enjoy it, but I have a suspicion that he’s not going to remember it all that well, nor will he clamor for repeat viewings like he did with the original. It’s just not as engaging. Gidget and Chloe’s adventures in the cat house are fun enough, but I barely even remember the Snowball and Daisy storyline. But really, the biggest problems lie with Max’s arc.
This is due to some truly sluggish pacing with Max’s story, which is essentially the film’s main focus. His plotline is slow and uninteresting, but it’s also hindered by some fairly odd and unpleasant writing choices. The book on Max in these films is that he’s always anxious, and now doubly so as his owners have had a baby that he’s become hyper-protective about. He’s taken to a pet psychiatrist and — look, you can make a case that the idea of a pet psychiatrist is silly. I’m not here to fight that battle, though I will say as someone who married a veterinarian, there are very real and often difficult-to-handle issues with pets that go beyond just physical injury or sickness. But the fact is, the animals in these films are essentially stand-ins for people, and the film seems to delight in the anxiety from which Max clearly suffers. The other patients in the clinic are portrayed as straight-up loonies, culminating in a pair of cats who eerily only stare at the camera and intone “we start fires”. It’s funny … but it’s also not a good kind of funny.
This is further complicated by the fact that Max is given a cone to stop his nervous habit of scratching, an accessory that Rooster scoffs at and derides. Rooster is clearly meant to be a more manly, take-no-shit character, and the machismo that he exudes is … weird. It doesn’t really have a place here, and his entire philosophy towards Max is predicated on the idea that Max just needs to be tougher instead of dealing with Max’s actual fears and anxieties. And maybe I’m reading too much into a cartoon movie, but in the current political and social climate, are we really looking to teach the lesson that the road to improving your mental wellbeing is simply a matter of being tougher, without examining any of the root causes or real solutions? Children’s movies are often resolved by their characters facing their fears, and that’s fine, but they’re usually not fears created out of real internal struggle, and they’re usually not mocked for those feelings the way Max is here.
Anyway. Even if we take that misplaced bit of armchair psychiatry out, The Secret Life of Pets 2 simply isn’t good. The writing and directing team is the same as before, but this time it feels like they’re mailing it in more, relying more on tropes than on original ideas, using lazy metaphors to guide their characters through the story. It’s not a particularly exciting film, and the audience that I saw it with — filled with children and toddlers — was oddly quiet for long stretches, and kids were clearly getting fidgety. It’s this type of reaction that, more than any critical review, should tell you that this is probably best served as a rental/streaming option rather than a theatrical experience. I would say that the bright side is that at least it’s short, clocking in at a mere 86 minutes, but the truth is? The Secret Life of Pets 2 felt long, far longer than that, because it’s so damn boring in parts. And while it provides a few hearty laughs, between its pacing and messaging, all too often it felt like everything a kids’ film shouldn’t be.
Header Image Source: Illumination