de facto film reviews 2.5 stars

In 2016, Illumination Studios released their first original animated film since the original Despicable Me, a family film titled The Secret Life of Pets. Designed to focus on what our pets do when we leave them, the film stars Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet, as well as an array of other actors, as two dogs who must learn to tolerate each other’s presence in order to make it home before their owner does.

Despite claims that Hollywood doesn’t produce any original projects, The Secret Life of Pets qualifies. It’s not based on any preexisting material, and ended up grossing over 800 million dollars at the box office. So, as with any successful original film, the studio saw the opportunity to produce a franchise. Now, three years after the original, The Secret Life of Pets 2 has finally come out, with the whole cast returning, except for Louis C.K. for reasons not worth mentioning.

In some ways, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an improvement over the original. This sequel dumps the first one’s Toy Story-inspired narrative in favor of three new stories, and aside from the inclusion of Kevin Hart’s Snowball, it has almost nothing to do with the first film. In a way, it almost feels like this should have been the first film; a movie that focuses on the different aspects of the characters lives as apposed to a journey around New York to find their way home.

That being said, there are some things that make it not as good as the original. This is mostly due to the film having maybe one too many stories during its 86 minute runtime. Because the stories have almost nothing to do with each other until the third act, it would be easier to review this movie as if it were an anthology. So let’s go through The Secret Life of Pets 2’s three different narratives, with fun unofficial titles to give this review a little character.

Max vs. The World

After the events of the first film, Max (Patton Oswalt) has fallen into a steady brotherhood with Duke (Eric Stonestreet). His owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) has met a man named Chuck, and soon they are married with a son named Liam. Max eventually warms up to Liam’s presence, but soon becomes overprotective of him. On a family trip to a farm, Max meets an older dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford), who will teach him that there are some things you can’t protect people from.

The film probably could’ve benefitted more from a larger focus on this story. This one has the best lessons, albeit with somewhat more old fashioned messages about not being afraid of everything. It’s hard to tell if every parent is going to agree with Rooster’s view of the world, but what he has to offer in wisdom is very insightful. Also, Harrison Ford does give a great performance as the character, in his first animated role.

And you know, despite it being a bit jarring having Patton Oswalt take over the character of Max, he actually gives a better performance than Louis C.K. Oswalt actually fits the character more, and he makes him sound more like a selfless companion, unlike the initial selfish personality he had at the beginning of the first movie. I would have liked to have seen C.K. come back, but at least they got someone who actually did it better.

Gidget the Cat

With Max gone on his trip, he entrusts Gidget (Jenny Slate) to watch his favorite toy while he’s gone. However, she accidentally lets it bounce into the apartment of a crazy cat lady, and the hundreds of cats in the home aren’t willing to give up the toy without a fight. With the help of Chloe (Lake Bell), Gidget will learn how to act like a cat in order to enter the apartment and gain their trust long enough to get the toy back.

This story has the most comical moments of the film, mostly due to the contrasting personalities of Gidget and Chloe. Jenny Slate and Lake Bell have great comedic chemistry in their performances. It’s premise of a dog trying to disguise itself as a cat harkens back to classic animated kid shows. So, while it doesn’t necessarily do anything new with the central idea, and it’s placement of the film often feels distracting, it knows to how to present the best parts so that we are still thoroughly entertained.

Captain Snowball

Now that Snowball (Kevin Hart) has an owner of his own, he lives his days blissfully enjoying whatever she puts him through. She creates a superhero persona for him called Captain Snowball, and he believes himself to be a real hero, though only as a way to boost his ego. So when a dog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) wants his help in rescuing a tiger from a circus, it doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s in way over his head.

To be honest, this is the story that movie probably could’ve done without. It does have a handful of funny moments, mostly due to Kevin Hart’s performance as Snowball. However, the story’s message about circuses being terrible places for animals often feels forced and overly cynical. Also, as cute as Daisy’s design is, Haddish just didn’t fit with the character. Her casting felt like an excuse to get her and Hart back together, but the character could have faired better with a lighter voice.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 doesn’t do much to expand on the cast of characters the first film introduced us to. But thanks to its colorful animation and talented voice cast, it still has a handful of moments that will keep both kids and parents sufficiently entertained. There are times when this film feels like an almost necessary redo of the first one, and there are some things the first film did better. In the end, it’s hard to say whether or not this is better or worse than the first one, but there’s no denying that it’s still entertaining, especially for kids.