has made a number of interesting changes since the first film’s debut back in 2016. Notably, Patton Oswalt has replaced the problematic Louis C.K. as the voice of the lead pup Max; the rest of the cast remains intact with some new A+ additions like Tiffany Haddish and Harrison Ford. Less obvious is the fact that writer Brian Lynch tackled screenwriting duties as a solo venture instead of opting for a team this time around. Co-director and veteran Illumination animation director Jonathan del Val steps in to assist returning director Chris Renaud, replacing the previous film’s co-director Yarrow Cheney (The Grinch); it’s worth mentioning that Illumination promotes in-house and encourages collaboration, too. This is all to say that Illumination was willing to make some necessary changes to a film franchise that earned nearly $900 million in its first outing, and honestly, they’re all for the better.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is surprisingly fun and funny, a more family-friendly take on the material than the original, which was shockingly violent and mean-spirited despite the big-eyed animals promising the kiddos that it was all in fun. This script is more mature, more focused, and better-crafted all around, making for an enjoyable 86-minute movie that’s more about entertaining than it is about educating. It may fall short when it comes to landing the moral of the story but the rest of the ride is worth the price of admission.
Previously, in The Secret Life of Pets, a somewhat neurotic Jack Russell Terrier by the name of Max had to contend with the arrival of a big, dopey new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Their Odd Couple relationship was complicated (and ultimately bolstered) by a murderous little bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and a number of other very silly animal pals. This time around, Max is a little older and a little less neurotic, at least until a (human) baby boy joins the family. That fact sends Max into an over-protective spin as he tries to keep the little one safe from the many suddenly present dangers of the world.
Oswalt plays this version of Max expertly well, better than Louis C.K. would have regardless of any other off-screen issues. Adding to Max’s anxiety is both a visit to the vet (which is one of the absolute funniest sequences in the entire movie) and a trip to the countryside away from his home, comfort, and friends. This sets up one of the strengths of The Secret Life of Pets 2: It’s three-subplot story that keeps the pacing up, allows audiences to spend time with new and returning characters alike, and wonderfully weaves things back together by the movie’s end. Here’s how they break down:
Max and Duke travel to the country with their human family. There, they’re occupied by the sights, sounds, and particularly the smells of the rural environment; Max is overwhelmed by these while Duke is absolutely thrilled at all the countryside has to offer. In a tale that’s reminiscent of “The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse”, Homeward Bound, City Slickers, and even An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Max’s urban proclivities bump up against the salt-of-the-earth stylings of the down-home country dog, Rooster (Harrison Ford). Rooster, who at first dismisses Max as a weak-willed city pup, soon takes the youngster under his wing in order to toughen him up in his own particular way. (The gruff and aloof Ford was a perfect choice to play Rooster.) While the relationship never gets much deeper than that of a mentor and apprentice, it provides some laughs and gives Max the confidence he needs to return home to the city.
Meanwhile, Gidget (Jenny Slate) has been left in charge of Max’s favorite toy, something she sees as an opportunity to “play house” with boyfriend Max and their “baby.” The problem is that she loses said toy to a clowder of completely insane cats residing in an old cat lady’s apartment. This subplot is absolutely hilarious and to say too much would be to give the best beats away, but the cats steal the show. A close second is Gidget recruiting fancy cat Chloe (Lake Bell) to teach her how to be a convincing faux feline. This entire subplot is filled with meta references that will sail over the little ones’ heads but should be appreciated by adults with a passing knowledge of cinema classics.
The third subplot, which is easily the most cartoonish and ridiculous of the bunch, centers on Snowball and newcomer Daisy (Haddish). Snowball has calmed down quite a bit, even if Hart hasn’t, and is happily dressed up as a superhero by his new owner. (This section does get a super-fun and differently animated sequence that looks like a comic book come to life, so kudos to the animators.) Snowball takes on this superheroic persona to help Daisy rescue a wild animal held in captivity by a mad, cruel circus owner (Nick Kroll). This whole side story gives audiences plenty of time with Snowball and his cute/insane antics, but the smart move was in limiting how much screen time it gets. It serves to add some dramatic tension to the final act of the movie when all three of the subplots converge, ending the whole shebang with an unexpected action sequence that sees the pets putting their newfound lessons to good use.
Really the only shortcoming of The Secret Life of Pets 2 is that it ultimately doesn’t have anything to say. The first film started out as a metaphor for step-siblings learning to get along after an uncomfortable transition period but deteriorated into a weirdly violent survival story that forced mutual acceptance on Max and Duke because they had to rely on each other just to live to see another day. The sequel follows a similar track: The introduction of a baby into the household forces Max to grow up rather quickly, becoming paranoid in the process; that’s a solid metaphor for new parents out there. But Max’s country experiences and newfound self-confidence don’t ever really connect to the story’s original conceit. The difference between the two films is that The Secret Life of Pets 2 is funnier, way more family-friendly (minus a scene where the villain threatens our heroes with an actual gun and a few near instances of vehicular homicide…), and better paced thanks to the well-crafted subplot structure.
Illumination still has a way to go to approach contemporary animated greats like Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon franchise, but at least Pets has grown up quite a bit in the last three years.
See The Secret Life of Pets 2 in theaters this Friday, June 7th. For more on The Secret Life of Pets 2, be sure to check out these related write-ups: