Home video releases of animated movies often boast of bonus-feature “mini-movies” featuring characters from the main film. For the most part, this is a pointless rebranding of a century-old practice; these “mini-movies” are otherwise known as animated shorts. But that inorganic marketing terminology does naturally spring to mind during The Secret Life Of Pets 2. This sequel to the massive 2016 hit from Illumination, the most successful third-rate animation house in the world, has three storylines that are mostly unrelated and awkwardly cut together, each feeling sub-plottier than the last. They really do feel like mini-movies—or a super-sized, 90-minute sitcom episode.
The primary and yet least consequential storyline continues in the first film’s tradition of knocking off Pixar. While the first Secret Life Of Pets was basically just Toy Story with animals, the sequel compresses a number of titles, mostly from Pixar’s neuroses-of-parenting cycle. Max, the cute little dog from the first movie, is no longer threatened by the arrival of a second pet but rather his owner’s new baby, sort of like the new-puppy stinger at the end of Toy Story. As in Toy Story 2, this twist is quickly untwisted; Max becomes a surrogate parent to the tyke, mimicking the pivot from fear to protectiveness from Monsters, Inc. and the nervous-dad tics of Finding Nemo. In finding a replacement for disgraced comedian Louis CK, who voiced Max in the original film, Illumination even turned to Remy The Rat himself, Patton Oswalt, who does his best, a long way from the sophistication of Ratatouille.
Lacking a plot engine as strong as a Pixar movie, Pets 2 dawdles around Max’s increased worry over the kid’s safety, until the whole family, including Max and his buddy-dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet), take a trip out to a relative’s farm. Max, a Manhattan dog through and through, is freaked out by the variety of animals and strange noises out in the country. This doesn’t exactly track for a dog who fought off a gigantic sewer snake in the first film, and whose supposed source of anxiety (his now-beloved toddler) spends much of this section off screen. But Max needs to be irrationally afraid of everything so he can be tough-talked away from cowardly over-parenting by the gruff sheepdog Rooster (Harrison Ford).
Meanwhile, more traditional level of antics continue back in the city, as Gidget (Jenny Slate), the fluffy dog with a crush on Max, accidentally loses Max’s favorite toy to a cat-lady apartment, and seeks training from proud cat Chloe (Lake Bell) to prepare her for a rescue mission. And for one more meanwhile, the movie checks in with reformed supervillain bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), who is now convinced he is a superhero, and as such agrees to help new dog Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) free a tiger from a Russian circus.
As it turns out, these two B-stories are vastly preferable to Max’s, which the filmmakers decide to play out as a de facto red state/blue state clash. Rooster, who appears to have no children, nonetheless knows everything wrong with Max’s fearful approach to quasi-parenting, which the movie characterizes as tacitly big-city (perhaps not surprising for a film series whose ideas for New York-specific song cues range from “Empire State Of Mind” to Taylor Swift’s “Welcome To New York”). In Rooster’s day, kids learned from being allowed to make mistakes and hurt themselves—even though Rooster is a dog, and therefore almost certainly born in the 2000s.
The other two stories, as pointless and strung-along as they are, have the reference-light, cuteness-heavy cartoon charm that made the original Secret Life Of Pets one of Illumination’s least irritating efforts. Slate continues to add some wonderful characterization to the determined Gidget, while Hart and Haddish make an appealingly silly team. (At least this movie’s celebrity-studded cast includes a lot of genuinely expressive and idiosyncratic voices.) The movie is rarely clever, but in these screw-around sections populated by goofy personalities, it is sometimes funny.
This series does manage to capture something about animal psychology, and it has a flicker of a resonant idea in its treatment of Max as equal parts needy child and neurotic parent. What are parents, after all, if not former kids who secretly wonder if they’re just faking it? But that demographic may be too bored to engage with a half-perceptible undercurrent in a movie that isn’t, in the end, even on par with second-tier Pixar. Actual kids will probably enjoy The Secret Life Of Pets 2, just as they probably enjoy whatever mini-movies Illumination churns out to supplement its hyper-successful home-entertainment releases. But they might also start to sense just how mini this sequel feels, and start fidgeting after 15 or 20 minutes.