[su_dropcap size=”5″]I[/su_dropcap]f a movie could be judged solely on its vibrant colors and unrelenting cuteness, The Secret Life of Pets 2 would be an all-out masterpiece. This film looks bright and beautiful, yet its storytelling feels aggressively clichéd and lazy. Children’s movies have long proven they can shift into neutral and still turn a profit, but enough of them have also demonstrated real nuance and innovation that we can safely demand more from something like this. Pets 2 has plenty of fluffy characters who squeak adorable bits of dialogue, but anyone looking for anything beyond 85 minutes of boredom-killing product will be sorely disappointed.
The story is thinner than the pastrami at Schwartz’s Deli: We begin a few years after the events of the first film. Max (Patton Oswalt, stepping in after Louis C.K. was exposed as a perv) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet), our pup protagonists, must adjust when their owner (Ellie Kemper) marries and has a little boy. At first, Max is supremely annoyed by this squalling, ear-pulling toddler, but eventually comes to love him with a fanatical devotion. Soon, Max’s overprotectiveness rivals that of an obnoxious, suburban drone-mom. (I feel like I missed the opportunity to bust out the word “fussbudget” in there somewhere. Don’t worry, I’ll get around to it eventually.) The family travels to a relative’s farm, where Max meets a Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster (Harrison Ford). Rooster attempts to sort out Max’s neuroses with some good old-fashioned Marlboro Man wisdom.
Oh yeah, we also get a B-story that centers on Snowball (Kevin Hart), an egomaniacal bunny who feels like a floppier take on Buzz Lightyear. Snowball and a sass-mouthed Shih Tzu named Daisy team up to free a tiger cub from the cruel clutches of a circus promoter. Most of this subplot–and the equally uninspired bit with Jenny Slate’s Pomeranian breaking into a cat-laden apartment–feel like filler, meant to pad this sucker out to feature length. The script riffs on familiar clichés: Dogs are adorable, guileless beings who somehow make obsequiousness part of their charm. Cats are entitled, sociopathic brats whose villainy is only contained by their own apathy. This ground has been covered a million times, and in better movies than this.
None of this can be faulted on the talented voice cast. Few actors can coat their geekiness with a layer of goofy charisma quite like Patton Oswalt, and he brings an earnest likability to Max. Harrison Ford sounds like a bucket of dry gravel as Rooster, and his presence gives the movie a needed injection of iconic star power. Jenny Slate imbues her ditzy Pomeranian with an easy-going sweetness and sincerity. The Secret Life of Pets 2 has just enough enthusiasm to keep kids from destroying the theater around them. It passes that test, but do we really have to settle for that? Animated movies can be hilarious, smart, and moving at the same time. (I’m looking right at you, Toy Story 4.) And they can deliver jaw-dropping images and relentless excitement. Pets 2 somehow delivers more and less in one underwhelming package.
86 minutes. PG.
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