The sequel to the popular 2016 film has its characters learning new tricks, but its overabundance of plot and characters neuter its message.
Building a lasting franchise is hard work, especially with a movie like The Secret Life of Pets. While the film has charm and made a lot of money, it hasn’t much endurance in the popular consciousness. It has neither the artistry of a Disney or Pixar film nor any memetically-appealing characters like the Minions and as such needs an amazing sequel to establish it as a franchise. The question is, does Chris Renaud’s follow up The Secret Life of Pets 2 have the chops to make this a beloved movie series?
To its credit, the sequel takes its characters into new settings, with three major plot points intertwining together. New York City dogs Max (Patton Oswalt, Ratatouille) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family) have to adjust to their owners having a child, Liam (Henry Lynch). While Duke quickly grows accustomed to the new human, Max is initially apprehensive, but soon falls in love with the boy. However, his overprotectiveness of Liam causes him to develop anxiety over the outside world, which is exacerbated by his owners taking the family on vacation to a family farm, where Max must overcome his fears.
While Max and Duke are away from home, their neighbors have some adventures of their own. Gidget (Jenny Slate, Zootopia), Max’s Pomeranian love interest from the first film, is tasked with taking care of his favorite toy while he’s away, but almost immediately a series of contrivances causes the toy to land into the apartment of a crazy cat lady (Meredith Salenger). With the help of a neighbor cat, Chloe (Lake Bell, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse), Gidget must learn the ways of the feline if she’s going to retrieve that toy.
The more outlandish subplot features former animal resistance rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), who has settled into the domestic life but imagines himself as a superhero. He is given the chance to live out these fantasies when Shih Tzu, Daisy (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) implores him to free a captured tiger from the clutches of the abusive circus owner, Sergei (Nick Kroll, Sing!).
Most of the cast of the first film showed up for the second, with one notable exception: Louis CK, the original voice actor for Max, who was recast after being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Good riddance, honestly; while CK’s portrayal of Max was decent, Max is a straight man playing against crazy characters, and as such is the easiest to replace. For his part, Oswalt does a decent job sounding similar to the original portrayal. The main difference is Oswalt gives Max a more anxious, paternal edge, but this edge is indicative of his anxieties over Liam, so this portrayal feels like a natural progression of the character.
The rest of the returning cast does a good job, but there are so many characters that they aren’t given as much time to shine. Hart and Slate’s manic performances for their characters are memorable, and Bell’s slightly sardonic turn as Chloe provides the biggest laughs of the movie, but poor Duke is barely given anything to do, and it wastes Stonestreet’s comedic talent. He’s not the only one, as the other pets who featured prominently in the first movie are little more than glorified cameos.
The new cast gets a little more attention, with the show stealer being Haddish’s sassy Daisy, who has an infectious charm, even when she should be obnoxious. Harrison Ford (Star Wars) also has a role as Rooster, a sheepdog that helps Max become less afraid of the world. Ford’s portrayal is gruff but endearing and he brings some much-needed seriousness to this goofy movie.
If you think success is determined solely by profit, then this series will be a winner. If you determine success by memorability, then I don’t think this franchise will stand the test of time.
The overabundance of characters and plots also weakens the themes that the movie is aiming at. The second Secret Life purports to be about learning to be brave in the face of danger, but it’s not given much time to develop. Max has one brave encounter, and suddenly all of his issues with anxiety are instantly cured. His character arc was truncated to make room for the two other plots.
While making the film more thematically hollow, the additional plots are more interesting than what happens to Max, specifically Snowball’s subplot. The idea of a rabbit and Shih Tzu teaming up to save a tiger from a circus is patently absurd, and the filmmakers aren’t afraid to lean into that absurdity. From a thrilling chase in a circus to a tiger who acts more like a kitten than a predator, to trying to find the tiger a home, the subplot is easily the most interesting part of the film and should have been the focus.
Visually, the film falls into a problem that a lot of Illumination films have: good animation with boring character designs. The backgrounds are gorgeous, whether it’s the picturesque countryside or its fairytale version of New York. The scenery is stylized, but not to the extent that it feels fake; it’s a heightened version of reality. The characters, on the other hand, aren’t memorable looking. The animals are cute, but feel like they were designed to be plush toys rather than characters (and let’s be honest, they probably were), and the human characters are as generic looking as it gets. The only character with a memorable design is Sergei, whose wide-brimmed hat, black flowing coat, and beak-like nose gives him an appearance that is reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Will this sequel launch a successful franchise? More than likely this film will make enough money to warrant at least one addition to the series, but whether you think the franchise will be successful or not is determined by your criteria. If you think success is determined solely by profit, then this series will be a winner. If you determine success by memorability, then I don’t think this franchise will stand the test of time. While kids will enjoy the film, it’s doubtful they will want to watch it again after their tweens, and I highly doubt they’ll be itching to show it to their kids when they grow up. The love for a pet may last forever, but love for The Secret Life of Pets 2 almost surely won’t.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 chases a runaway Frisbee into theaters Friday, June 7th.