Illumination garners a lot of unwarranted hate. No, the Despicable Me studio hasn’t made an animated film I would call great, but they’ve never made a notably terrible movie, either. They may not hold a candle to the heavy hitters in animation like Disney and Pixar, but Illumination have consistently provided decent children’s entertainment, and nothing they’ve made has been as bad as the darker side of Dreamworks Animation (remember Shark Tale?) or Sony Pictures Animation (come on, before Spider-Verse, did they have a good movie to their name?).
It’s funny, when Despicable Me was first released, people seemed to love that it was a simple and harmless feature, and appreciated that it was a small-scale animated film that managed to find success. But I suppose it found too much success, because lord knows in this internet age, we can’t allow anything to become too popular/liked (the motto of millennials may as well be “we hate happiness”). Suddenly the perception of Illumination took a complete 180, and what was previously seen as simple became ‘stupid,’ and the Minions suddenly became the most annoying things on the planet (y’know, because popular with kids).
The truth though, is that Illumination makes decent kids movies, and they may crack a few laughs out of adults too. Illumination doesn’t make great animated films, but they make fun cartoons. Even their worst movie is harmless.
With that (largely unnecessary) defense of Illumination Studios out of the way, The Secret Life of Pets 2 – sequel to Illumination’s 2016 film – is among the weaker side of the studio’s spectrum. Again, that’s harmless. It’s simply a movie that will appeal to its intended audience (children), but maybe miss the mark with the older crowd. But hey, not every animated film can have the universal appeal of Pixar.
The story here takes place some years after the first Secret Life of Pets. Katie (Ellie Kemper), the owner of dogs Max (Patton Oswald) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet), falls in love, gets married, and has a baby named Liam. Though the dogs have apprehension about the baby at first, they quickly grow protective of him. This is especially true of Max, who sees the world in a whole new, dangerous light now that he’s concerned over the baby’s safety.
The film then diverges into three different plots: Story A sees Max and Duke go on a trip to Katie’s father-in-law’s farm, where Max’s bravery is tested by the farm’s sheepdog, Rooster (Harrison Ford). Story B involves Gidget (Jenny Slate) – the Pomeranian upstairs neighbor of Max and Duke who is infatuated with the former – trying to reclaim Max’s favorite toy from an old cat lady’s apartment after she was left in charge of said toy during Max’s trip. Finally, story C sees eccentric bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) – believing himself to be a superhero due to his owner’s playtime activities – try to rescue a white tiger from a cruel circus ringleader with the help of a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish).
If the three different plots sound largely disconnected, that’s because they are, until the finale scrambles to tie them all together in an attempt to justify this sequel’s status as a feature-length film as opposed to a series of short films. The episodic nature of the movie can lead to a manic pacing, which can make it feel like one of those kids movies that feels like it has to zoom through things in order to keep children’s attention. And it’s always unfortunate to see a children’s film that seems to think children aren’t capable of following a movie if it isn’t constantly moving.
Still, the individual bits and pieces have their charms. Snowball’s storyline brings out the best comedic bits in the movie. I like the character Rooster, whose overly practical and disinterested disposition seem to be a parody of Harrison Ford himself. And as is usually the case for Illumination, you would never guess that the studio makes its movies on a (relatively) small budget, as the animation is vibrant and boasts a cartoonish fluidity that adds to the physical comedy.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is nothing special. It’s lack of focus means it’s not even as good as the first Secret Life of Pets. It does feel like a rushed, cash-in sequel. But y’know, as far as rushed, cash-in sequels go, at least The Secret Life of Pets 2 is cute.
No, Illumination may not yet have found the recipe to make great animated movies. But if my generation can adamantly defend the cheesy Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s that were solely designed to sell toys (*Cough! Transformers! Cough!*), then I can defend Illumination’s okay movies for being, well, okay.