The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an improvement in almost every way over its Toy Story-ripoff predecessor; it’s sweeter, kinder, and more open about its feelings. However, in trying to keep it short and effective – it lasts only 86 minutes – we’re bowled over by three distinct stories which barrel at us faster than the final lap of the Indianapolis 500. However, you won’t mind spending the time figuring out what sticks and what doesn’t.
Most of it sticks thanks to Patton Oswalt taking over the lead character from Louis C.K., as Oswalt provides the voice of Max with a more affable and loving presence. He’s got a perfect mix of adorkable, clueless, and confidence; he voices Max with so much care, it’s impossible to not like him. Riding shotgun with him is Eric Stonestreet as Duke, a hulking mass of hair and happiness. These two take us on the magical mystery tour which starts when their owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) starts a family.
Right from the off, we get the feeling that director Chris Renaud and screenwriter Bryan Lynch worked off of one simple maxim: FAST. We’re thrown quickly into Max and Duke’s new reality where they have to share attention with Liam (Henry Lynch), Katie and husband Chuck’s (Pete Holmes) new son. Dog owners who’ve been through this circumstance will smile wistfully at the script turning the dogs’ thoughts about this new interloper into human thought. Our hearts will also warm at the sight of Max and Duke accepting Liam into their pack, changing their opinions of annoyance to flat-out familial love; “This one’s mine,” Max says of Liam at one point, and we believe him.
This is where the story delves straight into social commentary regarding helicopter parenting and overreaching. Max holds too much worry in that little Jack Russell Terrier body of his – so much so that he develops a nervous scratching habit. A visit to a behavioral veterinarian helps a bit, but no such therapist could possibly match Rooster (Harrison Ford), a Welsh Sheepdog on Chuck’s father’s farm. Harking back to a time when “men were men,” Rooster comes more from a realist point of view, handling only what can and should be handled, leaving the rest as a part of growing up.
It’s not a toxic kind of masculinity Rooster represents; it’s more of an “if you can’t help the situation, why worry?” kind of mentality. He’s there to do his job – rounding up cattle and sheep, and fighting off the stray fox which ventures into the pasture – and nothing more. He’s a strong contrast to how Max’s mind runs away with doubt and panic; mind you, he’s not telling him not to care, but to allow things to simply be.
Ford’s voice, of course, has been a staple of our culture since his roles as Bob Falfa in American Graffiti and Han Solo in Star Wars. Forty-something years later, he’s still as recognizable as ever, his tones switching swiftly between standoffish and gentle, although he doesn’t show the latter much. It’s an odd phenomenon we witness here, as he’s the elder statesman who commands respect from both the other characters in the film and their actors; not many are capable of doing this, and fewer still receive that respect the way he does.
Max and Duke’s story are the beating heart of the film, while another subplot gives us some more commentary regarding circus animals and their treatment. Snowball (Kevin Hart), former rabbit leader of a gang of sewer animals, currently fancies himself a superhero due to his new owner showering him with affection and dressing him up in various costumes. Patrolling the building and the local streets in his cape and cowl, a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) pleads with him to help her free a rare white tiger from an abusive, terrifying circus master (Nick Kroll). And in the film’s third subplot, Max’s friend Gidget (Jenny Slate) has lost the toy Max asked her to watch while he’s gone.
By the time all these subplots merge and the animals form one giant team, our attention spans will feel as if they were knocked around with a baseball bat. There’s no time for the usual getting-to-know-you filler which stock films like these to their breaking points; instead, we’re in and out of each plotline as soon as the lesson is learned. Max’s sort-of friendship with Rooster doesn’t last very long; neither does the one between Snowball and Daisy. For that matter, the shenanigans Gidget gets up to are over before you know it. The film doesn’t drag, but it could have used maybe one or two more moments for a little additional development and to help us catch our breath a bit.
Even though it’s paced at Mach speeds, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an absolute joy, imparting sweetness and heart to everything it touches. There are some minor language quibbles – “hell” and “pissed” are two words you don’t usually hear in animated fare like this – but it’s best left as a sign of the times and the changes in modern children’s humor. The Secret Life of Pets 2 has a way of tugging at your soul which escaped the first film, being rooted in heroic and personal character journeys which don’t involve one being nasty to the other. Its themes of help and guidance are made plain immediately, but these themes are merely the backdrop which allows these characters to tug us into their adventures.