Released: 20th June (Advance Screening)
Seen: 8th June
The animation company Illumination has something of an interesting reputation when it comes to critical acclaim. Their Despicable Me series, for example, was a breath of fresh air that everyone seemed to love… until they unleashed Minions on the world and people began contemplating an open revolt against the company. Their film Sing also scored a lot of praise, but then they would unleash a couple of Dr Seuss adaptations that were pretty abysmal (one of them so bad that it made me go through a period of uncontrollable rhyming). They’re very hit and miss so going into The Secret Life of Pets 2, I had some trepidation While I hadn’t seen the original I have heard enough about it to know that it was a hit and if we follow Illuminations pattern, this one had a good chance of being a miss… but turns out, it was closer to a light tap of the bat. Still technically a hit, but nothing to write home about.
The Secret Life Of Pets 2 follows several animals living in an apartment building, starting with Max (Patton Oswalt) who has finally gotten into a routine with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). However, Ellie ends up getting pregnant and giving birth to a little boy called Liam. Max ends up really loving Liam and takes it upon himself to try and protect Liam, but the stress of trying to keep a baby safe in New York City ends up turning Max into a nervous wreck and he requires serious therapy and a trip to the farm.
MEANWHILE, a puppy named Gidget (Jenny State) is put in charge of minding Max’s favourite toy while he’s off at the farm but she ends up accidentally losing it in the nearby apartment of a Crazy Cat Lady, an apartment that’s appropriately full of crazy cats. In order to get the ball, she must learn how to think like a cat and so, with the help from the eternally-relatable apathetic snarky cat Chloe (Lake Bell), Gidget prepares to go get the ball.
MEANWHILE, a rabbit called Snowball (Kevin Hart) has taken to dressing like a superhero and wants to solve crimes, which is good because a Shih Tzu called Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) has a crime for him to solve. The crime, in this case, being a tiger named Hu (no voice so no voice actor, because why give a giant tiger a funny voice?) that is currently being tormented by an evil abusive circus owner called Sergei (Nick Kroll). So, Snowball has to help Daisy save the tiger.
MEANWHILE… actually that’s it, but it definitely felt like the kind of movie that could have about four more MEANWHILE moments.
Do you remember those old straight to VHS movies that Disney used to put out that were just a few episodes of a cancelled TV series that was sewn together Human Centipede style? That’s kind of what this movie felt like, three completely different stories that only relate to each other right at the start of each plot (aka, Gidget gets the ball from Max, that is the end of their interaction) or during the ‘climactic’ ending when everyone technically meets up, but only barely. Now, theoretically, there isn’t a big problem with that… unless it’s executed badly and here, it really is. Basically, everyone goes off to different parts of the country for the majority of the film, doing three different unrelated stories and then once the Max and Gidget plot is basically done, they decide to join in on Snowballs craziness just for fun. It just doesn’t work as a narrative… but then one of the dogs leaps out of a litter tray going “There’s treats in here” and the child 4 rows behind me almost breaks a bone by laughing, so maybe the plot problems aren’t that big a deal.
The entire character arc for Max feels like it doesn’t really know what it’s doing. It starts with Max being nervous about keeping Liam safe, an interesting plot that they start to do something with by having him scared about Liam going to pre-school… and then, for no reason, we’re taken to a farm and suddenly we go from an arc about a dog dealing with abandonment issues and potential harm coming to his favourite human to just a dog who is apparently scared of anything and can be cured by having a Sheepdog called Rooster (Harrison Ford) berate him for 5 minutes. There’s a solid chunk of Max’ s story where they basically drop Liam off and forget about him right up until just as the credits are about to roll so his evolution never feels earned. It was just as I realised that the character arc wasn’t working for me when two dogs lifted their legs to pee on a tree and there was a joke about the human child doing the same thing and a kid 3 rows ahead of me giggled endlessly, so maybe character arcs aren’t something that the target audience know about yet.
When it comes to writing a good joke, they aren’t exactly easy and I definitely understand that they might not be able to hit home runs every time but I went a disturbingly long amount of time without so much as cracking a smile. There were certainly some cute moments, Snowball singing the Superman theme song is a good example, and there were scenes that made me go “Yeah, yeah that’s how cats behave. That’s definitely a thing that a member of the feline species might do” but no real knee slappers, no witty lines, it just kind of washed over me. It’s not like the jokes were so bad that I groaned and resented being there, but they just didn’t stand out. I came to this specific realisation when a cat on screen sat on a sleeping woman’s chest and hacked up a hairball on her bed and several small children said “What’s that?” before they laughed because the lady made a disgusted face and the cat on screen clearly didn’t care so maybe the comedy isn’t aimed towards a more general audience.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 isn’t awful, it’s not bad, it’s just kind of fine. We’re not talking about a Pixar movie with deep themes or clever jokes or shockingly amazing animation, it’s a simple 90-minute colourful distraction designed to keep the tiny ones quiet long enough that you can catch your breath. It may not be the kind of film you go to and enjoy as much as your kids, but you aren’t going to sit there lamenting the day they were conceived because they made you bring them. It’s fine, it’s forgettable, it’s basically something that you see because the holidays are coming and the kids want to see a movie and you’re pretty confident you can’t sneak them into Rocketman without getting some shifty looks. It’s fine, it’s just… it’s fine.