The Secret Life of Pets 2 Review

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.

 

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The Secret Life of Pets Review

The Secret Life of Pets

I usually like to make a distinction between “animated films” and “cartoons.” The term “cartoon” is sometimes seen as a dismissive connotation, though I don’t necessarily think that it should be. It just describes a different side to animation. While the animated film side tends to focus on storytelling, those that fall under the category of cartoon tend to emphasize comedy and silliness over anything else. While most of the big animation studios of today are trying to push the boundaries of animated films, Illumination Entertainment (creators of the Despicable Me franchise and its popular Minion characters) proudly churns out feature-length cartoons, with a visual quality that greatly benefits their humor. As such, their works are hardly groundbreaking, but they provide fun doses of escapism. Illumination’s 2016 feature, The Secret Life of Pets, continues this tradition.

As its title implies, The Secret Life of Pets shows audiences what our pets are up to when we aren’t around. Ritzy poodles listen to heavy metal, birds find ways to create flight simulators, and some really do just sit around and wait for their owners to get home.

It’s a simple enough setup, and not entirely original (talking animals are pretty run-of-the-mill in the animation world, and one could argue the concept is a kind of knockoff of Toy Story, but with household pets filling in for the toys). But it makes for some decent family comedy.

The plot centers on a terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), who becomes jealous when his owner Katie brings home a second dog from the pound. This other dog is Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large, shaggy mutt who is well-meaning, but is quick to take offense to Max’s jealous attitude (once again echoing Toy Story, and the dynamic between Woody and Buzz Lightyear).

The Secret Life of PetsThe two dogs then become something of rivals. And one day, when Katie is at work, her dog-walker loses control of Max and Duke during one of their feuds. A band of stray alley cats remove the dogs’ collars, and soon enough, Max and Duke end up lost in the city, and go on an adventure to try to find their way back home to Katie. All the while Max’s dog neighbor, a Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate) begins a search party comprised of other local pets on a quest to find Duke and Max (but mostly Max, with whom Gidget is infatuated).

Like Illumination’s other features, The Secret Life of Pets is an incredibly simple film, but it provides some good, lighthearted fun that can be hard to resist.

The opening moments of the film give a series of glimpses into the film’s concept, which provide some good humor (even if the trailers may have spoiled a good deal of the earlier gags in the film). Once Max and Duke set out on their adventure, however, is where the film tries a more honest bit of storytelling, with some inconsistent results.

When the story is centered more on the humor and the hectic action, it stands strongly enough. But the attempts at more sentimental moments – though an appreciated effort – ultimately fall flat, due to the characters’ largely one-dimensional personalities and lack of proper build-ups.

The Secret Life of PetsIt’s fun to see what antics Max and Duke find themselves in – particularly when they involve Snowball (Kevin Hart), a psychotic bunny who hates domesticated pets – and Gidget’s rescue mission works well enough as a humorous distraction. But there’s just something that feels off when the film tries to get more emotional. While Toy Story managed to masterfully pull-off a strong, emotional story amid its imaginative setup and more humorous aspects, The Secret Life of Pets only really seems to fully grasp the comedy in its concept.

Again, Illumination should get an ‘A’ for effort for trying to put some heart in the film (if only the Minions had been so lucky in their spinoff flick), but the emotion just feels clunky in execution.

With all that said, the comedy bits do work well enough to get some strong laughs from younger audiences, and maybe even a few from the adult crowd. Plus, they are complimented by Illuminations usual trend of fluid, cartoony animation, making it another great example of the studio’s knack for visual comedy.

The Secret Life of Pets may not be groundbreaking, or even remotely original. But it does what most of Illumination’s films do by giving audiences a roller coaster of vibrant colors, cute characters, and a harmless, irresistible charm.

 

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