Illumination – the animation powerhouse behind the Despicable Me franchise – loves to add just a little bit extra to its home video releases. So, from Despicable Me to The Grinch, every single Illumination Blu-Ray release comes with at least one mini-movie, usually three. They’re always perfectly pleasant, but inessential little side adventures, such as the dog from The Grinch going into Whoville in search of tea for his ailing master or the Minions auditioning for Santa’s workshop. Skippable, sure, but enough of a bonus for little kids to feel like they just have to own the movie, often to the chagrin of their parents.
The Secret Life of Pets 2, the sequel to the entertaining, if nakedly derivative 2016 comedy which redid Toy Story with dogs instead of toys, is the first time Illumination has said the quiet part out loud and simply put a bunch of mini-movies into theaters around the world. The barely cobbled together story is really just a bunch of random co-existing side adventures with no cohesive themes or reason for being. To call it episodic would be an understatement.
However, there’s also a certain freeing quality to that. If you go in knowing Secret Life of Pets 2 is basically just a bunch of mini-movies thrown together to prop up Max (Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C.K.) and Duke’s (Eric Stonestreet) latest adventure you’ll probably be able to get a couple of laughs out of it. You might at least appreciate the central metaphor about Max’s struggles with parenting. The kids, however, won’t be nearly as hard on the plot, won’t totally pick up on the metaphor, and will likely walk away at least moderately pleased. After all, look at all the cute cartoon animals doing cute cartoon animal things. So adorable!
Main Movie: Max and Duke are now close friends, but ever since their owner’s new son Liam came along Max has turned into a bit of a helicopter parent, seeing potential danger everywhere. When they go on a trip to a country farm, the unfamiliar setting and strange new animals combine for a stressful situation and threaten Max’s obsessive need to protect Liam. Will he learn to get over his anxieties and crippling fear of everything? If so, I can think of no better mentor than a take-no-shit-from-anybody grumpy old farm dog voiced by Harrison Ford. Duke, meanwhile, gets almost nothing to do. He’s kind of just there from time to time.
Mini-Movie #1: Gidget (Jenny Slate) goes undercover as a cat (thanks, fake cat ears!) to retrieve Max’s favorite squeaky toy, which he asked her to look after while he’s gone and she of course instantly lost out the window and into a cat lady’s apartment. Chloe the cat (Lake Bell), Norman the guinea pig (Chris Renaud), Buddy the dachshund (Hannibal Buress), Mel the pug (Bobby Moynihan), and Sweetpea (Tara Strong) the parakeet all chip in to help out.
Mini-Movie #2: Snowball’s (Kevin Hart) new side hustle as a costumed superhero takes him to a circus to free a tiger from an abusive, evil-with-a-capital-E owner (Nick Kroll) and his pack of threatening wolves. Truthfully, though, Snowball’s new friend Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a supremely confident Shih Tzu, does most of the work. Dana Carvey’s elderly basset hound character Pops, whose owner is inexplicably never home, eventually factors into the story.
There is an effort to merge all of the storylines at the end. Max’s journey toward badassdom gets an immediate test when he returns from the farm to find literal wolves outside his door, and as with the first film it all culminates in a madcap action setpiece in which the animals can suddenly drive a car. It’s all perfectly diverting for the kids in the audience.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Secret Life of Pets 2 admirably challenges itself to stop stealing so much from Toy Story, but without that template to go off of the filmmakers have mostly churned out a couple of a mini-movies to go along with a new farm-set adventure for Max to learn how to be a better man and parent from Harrison Ford. The kids probably won’t care about the flimsy construction of the story, though, because cute cartoon animals trump everything.