The Secret Life of Pets was, in many respects, a perfect summing up of what animation outfit, Illumination is about, at least beyond contributing to endless waves of Minions marketing. The Secret Life of Pets was a perfectly adequate, if rather forgettable animated romp that did its job, without really pushing the animated movie genre forward. In turn, the movie pocketed a modest profit, before retreating back into the shadows. After all, who doesn’t love talking animals? Pair that with the child-like imagination of what your pets get up to when you’re not around, and you have a low-key cinematic offering that was bound to decently succeed, and bound to lend itself to a comparably decent sequel.
Enter The Secret Life of Pets 2, the first follow-up within the first movie franchise that Illumination has successfully launched outside of Despicable Me/Minions. Like its predecessor, The Secret Life of Pets 2 does its job well enough, as a serviceable kid-friendly sequel that won’t set the world on fire, and likely won’t be remembered much. It seems that even Illumination is aware of this as well, since The Secret Life of Pets 2 ultimately has very little emphasis on actual storytelling, and is instead all about wacky, energetic gags that will hopefully amuse your children. Adults can still glean some enjoyment from The Secret Life of Pets 2 if they happen to like animated movies, particularly with its surprisingly solid voiceover performances from both new and returning performers, but this is ultimately an animated sequel that gives little, even if it also asks for little. As a simple-minded Summer distraction, that’s fair enough.
Many of the previous personalities from the original The Secret Life of Pets all make a return in The Secret Life of Pets 2, albeit with one major difference. Due to Louis C.K.’s troubles with sexual harassment in Hollywood in the wake of the #MeToo movement, he’s been booted from the franchise, with the lead role of Max now instead being voiced by Patton Oswalt in The Secret Life of Pets 2. There’s no effort made to disguise Max’s voice change at all either. Even children will no doubt quickly notice that Max has been recast, something that will potentially be quite distracting for them, should they happen to be very attached to the original The Secret Life of Pets. That said, all of the other lead actors from the first movie reprise their roles in this sequel, between Eric Stonestreet as Duke, Jenny Slate as Gidget, Lake Bell as Chloe, and Kevin Hart as Snowball, most notably.
The recognizable personalities are still performed very well too, even if the first movie’s canon is practically not acknowledged at all in this sequel. Gidget most notably is restricted to a subplot involving babysitting Max’s favourite toy, completely ignoring the apparent romance between the two from the first movie. Likewise, the formerly strained relationship between Max and Duke is also never mentioned in this sequel, with their storyline largely involving them going to a farm, where Max tries to seek guidance from a wise older herding dog named Rooster, voiced by Harrison Ford. Ford has never performed in an animated movie before, but he’s easily one of the best parts of The Secret Life of Pets 2, with the world-weary, seemingly cynical, but undeniably lovable Rooster no doubt quickly stealing the show for parents.
Other established characters such as Mel, Pops and Sweetpea also return in this follow-up, but they may as well have not done so, since their roles are so limited. Even the fan-favourite Chloe doesn’t feel like she has much of a storyline in The Secret Life of Pets 2, mostly showing up briefly to train Gidget to act more like a cat, so she can retrieve Max’s toy when she inevitably loses it in a cat-filled apartment. It’s actually Snowball that ends up having a larger heroic role in The Secret Life of Pets 2, when he becomes obsessed with proving himself as a superhero (because superheroes are popular in the real world right now, and literally no other reason), which leads to a stolen circus tiger, in turn provoking a crooked ringmaster that’s essentially supposed to serve as this movie’s ‘villain’, but really, who cares? The Snowball arc more or less serves as a way to clumsily tie everything together into a climactic sequence towards the end of the movie, one that acts as if The Secret Life of Pets 2 has a story, but it largely doesn’t. The idea of Snowball trying to be more heroic and Max trying to be more self-assured is fair enough, but if you’re seeing The Secret Life of Pets 2, you’d better be coming for the jokes, because that’s all that’s somewhat consistent in the writing.
When it comes down to it, The Secret Life of Pets 2 isn’t really about anything. It’s just a bunch of random subplots haphazardly slapped together amid a flimsy theme about accepting change, which several of the subplots don’t even reflect in any way. If you’re an adult expecting an actual storyline from your movie about talking animals, this is undeniably disappointing, particularly in a world where movies like Zootopia, the Madagascar trilogy and Finding Nemo/Dory exist. On the other hand however, it’s also difficult to argue that this series of mini-storylines among the established Secret Life of Pets personalities is more true to the franchise’s title, dealing with an overall ‘life’, and not just one particular incident primarily shared between Max and Duke.
Plus, there’s also the likely point that most children won’t care about the fact that The Secret Life of Pets 2 isn’t terribly deep. It’s clearly not designed to be deep. It’s a by-the-book animated movie sequel that’s aiming squarely for the middle, and I suppose in that respect, it does succeed. The ‘storyline’, if you can call it that, is charming enough, and has enough decent laughs to merit the price of admission, even if everything surrounding the jokes also feels incredibly, almost intentionally forgettable. At the same time though, nothing within the stories that comprise The Secret Life of Pets 2 is truly bad or offensive. It just doesn’t go above and beyond, and maybe, depending on what you’re looking for, that’s acceptable.
Original The Secret Life of Pets director, Chris Renaud returns to direct The Secret Life of Pets 2, now alongside co-director, Jonathan de Val, who formerly worked entirely within Illumination’s animation department. There’s not too much to say about their direction either. It’s all competent, and the extra manic, exaggerated animation is sure to amuse a lot of children, but there’s nothing else truly remarkable about how The Secret Life of Pets 2 is put together either. Adults will at least appreciate a few especially inspired sight gags and animation flourishes here and there, but a lot of this sequel is purely perfunctory, looking the part, and not looking to break new ground.
Alexandre Desplat once again returns from the original The Secret Life of Pets to compose the score for The Secret Life of Pets 2, a score that once again does its job well enough. There’s a good chunk of infectious energy behind the music of The Secret Life of Pets 2, which goes nicely with the often-exaggerated and over-the-top animation. Granted, the music works overtime to try and engage adults as much as the animation engages children, something it achieves with mixed success, but it does its job as a milquetoast soundtrack for a movie about talking animals.
The same is true of the rest of the sound design in The Secret Life of Pets 2. It’s energetic, but not overbearing, and pronounced, but not overwhelming. It’s exactly what you would expect from a fluffy, light-hearted kids’ movie in terms of sound. Everything is naturally stretched and pushed to its cartoon-ish limits, while still being careful to respect the still-developing senses of children. The animals sound recognizable without being excessively authentic, and the environments react with believability, if not realism. It’s all par for the course, and if you’ve seen just about any animated movie with talking animals, you’ll know exactly what to expect here.
Illumination’s animation has rarely, if ever truly pushed the boat out with its visual design, and that perfunctory look remains intact in The Secret Life of Pets 2. Everything looks appropriately eye-catching at least, with simple touches to the colour palette and environmental variation. The visuals are engaging enough for children to happily consume, but also inoffensive enough for adults to either sit through or sleep through, depending on their feelings about by-the-book animated animal flicks.
Kids in particular will certainly get a kick out of the energetic animation throughout much of the movie, even if it’s well beneath the standards of Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, maintaining that ‘basic’ look that many Illumination movies have somehow made work throughout the studio’s entire run to date. I also imagine that the visuals will benefit even more from a 3D presentation as well, though I unfortunately wasn’t able to see The Secret Life of Pets 2 in that format. The movie still looks good enough when viewed flat in 2D, but putting on some 3D glasses is probably the best way to experience all of the over-the-top cartoon animation in The Secret Life of Pets 2, assuming you’re inclined to see it on the big screen at all.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is a blatantly forced sequel that doesn’t truly need to exist, but it’s also strangely tough to get upset about that. The original The Secret Life of Pets certainly wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was amusing enough, and the same could be said of this sequel. In fact, if anything, The Secret Life of Pets 2 trims the fat and gets right to the point, building a short little movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and gives you exactly what you pay for; Talking animals being silly. There are no greater themes, there’s no needless character development, and there’s not even an over-arching storyline. It’s just pure animal-themed cartoon shenanigans, which kids will probably enjoy, and adults will tolerate reasonably enough.
That being said, it’s also impossible to argue that The Secret Life of Pets 2 is immensely disposable, and a clear step down from its predecessor. Was anyone really that invested in the Secret Life of Pets franchise though? Somehow, I don’t think so. Like many Illumination movies, The Secret Life of Pets 2 makes an art of hitting the middle, doing just enough to avoid feeling disappointing or upsetting, but never really pushing its premise to truly novel or exciting territory either. It’s an undemanding proposition for those with little ones, or those who simply seek out animated movies in general, but when The Secret Life of Pets 2 is inexplicably sharing a release month with Pixar’s Toy Story 4, one also has to wonder why family audiences and adults in general don’t just wait for that instead. Then again, who am I to say that it’s wrong to laugh at some simple-minded talking animals, even if you’re also paying full ticket price to do little more than that.
- Entertaining animal performances from new and returning actors
- Some funny subplots between the animals
- Pleasantly lively animation throughout
- Shallow, disposable character presentation
- Almost completely lacks a real plot
- Fails to truly stand apart from other animated movies