Coming on the heels of its shaky predecessor, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is a mild, playful surprise with the confidence of a long-running franchise. This week’s other new movie, Dark Phoenix, feels like a TV show in a bad way, but TSLOP2 feels like one in a good way, with a sitcom-structured plot (written by Hop and Minions scribe Brian Lynch) and a cast of characters that functions like a well-oiled machine. These characters, mostly dogs and cats who live in the same New York City high-rise and can hang out together because their owners all leave their fire-escape windows open 24/7, aren’t terribly compelling or lovable, and I wouldn’t swear that all of them were in the first movie. But they and their good-natured adventures are amusing enough, and director Chris Renaud (of the Despicable Me series) keeps a light touch.
Like the TV show it very much wants to be, it has an A story, a B story, and a C story. In the main thread, terrier Max (Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C.K. for reasons I can’t imagine) spends vacation with his humans at a farm, where a grizzled old farm dog (Harrison Ford) teaches him not to be so anxious and overprotective of his humans’ toddler-age son, Liam. Meanwhile, back in the city, Snowball (Kevin Hart) the hyperactive bunny is recruited by a lapdog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to help rescue a tiger from a mean Russian circus, which they accomplish only to be pursued by circus wolves. The third story, barely connected to the others and purely extraneous, has pampered Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) agreeing to watch Max’s favorite toy while he’s gone and immediately losing it to an apartment full of cats.
It’s a bit odd that Duke (Eric Stonestreet), the big shaggy dog whose arrival in Max’s life was the first film’s driving conflict, is in the sequel but doesn’t do anything, and a little awkward how Liam clearly has TWO doggy best friends but Max talks like it’s just him. (Narratively, it would be cleaner for Duke not to be in the picture, but whaddaya gonna do, kill him off?) Having so much of the sequel centered on minor characters while Max is offstage is a bold choice, but the fast-paced structure means we’re never following one story thread for very long before hopping to another one, and each plot line has its share of funny gags. It won’t drive you crazy when it’s a TV show and your kids watch it all the time.