Cinema Dispatch: The Secret Life of Pets 2

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The Secret Life of Pets 2 and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures and Illumination

Directed by Chris Renaud

I remember the first movie having one of the most aggressive ad campaigns I’d seen since I started reviewing movies, and yet this one was much more subdued.  I only saw the trailer a few times leading up to its release, but while that certainly kept me from being ANNOYED by the movie it didn’t really do much to improve my expectations.  The first one was a C grade knock off of Toy Story, and while it wasn’t ALL bad it didn’t leave much of an impression outside of Jenny Slate’s performance and a few seconds of Andrew WK music to liven things up.  Can the sequel manage to improve where the last one came up short, or will this be a lazy cash grab on the success of the first one with similarly mediocre results?  Let’s find out!!

Following the events of the first film, Max and Duke (Patton Oswalt and Eric Stonestreet) have been getting along with their owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) in their peaceful New York life.  However, things change once Katie meets the man of her dreams Chuck (Peter Holmes), and cut to about five years later where Katie and Chuck have a kid named Liam (Henry Lynch) who Max is at first hesitant about but becomes quickly attached to.  The added stress of watching over a child however is starting to give Max some unhealthy habits, but maybe an upcoming vacation in the country with Chuck’s family and their dog Rooster (Harrison Ford) will be just what Max needs to relax!  While he’s off on his trip, Gidget (Jenny Slate) has been entrusted to watch his favorite toy which she loses almost immediately, and Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart) has become some sort of animal saving super hero who’s latest mission is to help a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) save a tiger who’s being abused by a VERY evil looking circus run by a bunch of dudes with Russian accents and permanent sneers; one of whom is played by Nick Kroll.  Will Max get over his nervous tendencies now that he’s around nature and the stern advice of Rooster?  Can the other pets shore up their subplots before the running time exceeds ninety minutes?  Is Illumination trying to sell us four episodes of an unaired TV series as a full length movie!?

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“WHY, NETFLIX!?  WHY WOULDN’T YOU HAVE US!?”

I can’t tell if this movie is just fine and I’m overthinking things or if Illumination somehow found the magic formula to being critic proof.  Now I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first one (which was a blatant rip off of Toy Story) so it’s not like I had any expectations for this going in, and on top of that it almost feels like they perfected whatever formula they were trying to craft with the other one, so while it’s not really an improvement, it’s at least… more efficient?  It sounds weird to even describe a movie like that, but where the first one was basically a five out of ten film TRYING to be a ten out of ten (okay, let’s be real here; an eight at best), this is a five out of ten TRYING to be a five out of ten.  If nothing else, it invites fewer comparisons to better movies which was an unavoidable asterisk on the last one, but is it better?  Eh… not substantially.  I think the structure and lax plotting help it move along so it breezes by quickly enough, but then again if you’re film’s best measure for improvement is that it feels like there’s less of it, then it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board.

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“Is this REALLY the best you can do?”     “Hey, you know what this is better than?  The Star Wars Holiday special.”     “Watch your mouth.”

It was kind of surreal watching this movie as a critic because I had to keep reminding myself over and over again that I didn’t ACTUALLY care.  Whatever flaws I saw cropping up in this were certainly noticeable and not what I want to see in movies like this, but they’re at worst lateral moves that don’t really bring the movie down compared to the last one, and frankly I don’t see a younger audience getting hung up on any of it.  The movie’s prologue just seeps through years of these characters lives to crowbar in a new status quo which feels like a lazy shortcut to me, but then I remember that the status quo before wasn’t anything special so we’re not LOSING anything, and most of the absurdly rushed changes have to do with their owner who were barely a factor in the first film so why would it matter now?  I saw the flaw right there, but did it MEAN anything to me?  Not in the slightest.  Similarly, I’m not a fan whenever a movie or TV show tries to add kids to try and shake up stale material, but it’s not like the previous movie was mature or nuanced to begin with, so bringing things down for an even YOUNGER audience isn’t really doing much for my enjoyment to begin with.  The film ends up getting a lot of slack because of how middling the last one was, and the thing is that the more laid back and unassuming design of it all might just be the key to why I have SLIGHTLY more positive feelings for this one than the last one.

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“Who wants ice cream!?”     “Aren’t we supposed to be doing something right now?”     “Eh, it can’t be THAT important!”

The movie is structured like a TV show with very distinct episodic subplots, so unlike the first one it doesn’t have one overarching story it’s trying to tell.  Honestly, I think this is the right approach because it means that they don’t have to come up with anything particularly complicated and can just come up with wacky scenarios that need to eat up about fifteen or twenty minutes of screen time, which it does just fine.  This is kind of what I’m saying when I say this movie is efficient and isn’t shooting for the moon.  Its ambition is small, but it knows how to achieve it; by cutting all the pretenses and just making a series of vignettes with the animals that honestly don’t amount to a whole lot other than sight gags and solid celebrity voice work.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with anything this film did (other than Jenny Slate who is ALWAYS awesome), but it never truly failed at anything and my attention was held for the entire runtime.  Okay, it started to waiver in the third act where everything is supposed to come together, but even if I can’t really say it’s a better movie than the first one, I at least managed to sit through it a lot easier.

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Hey, if Robert Patterson is gonna be Batman, I say they make Jenny Slate Catwoman!

Still, this movie is flawed and certainly in ways that I’m not about to just sweep under the rug because I couldn’t be asked to care.  The big one is the subplot with the tiger which never feels like they got a handle on what it was supposed to be.  First of all, the tiger is WAY too cute.  An odd thing to criticize to be sure, but it felt like they backed themselves into a corner with the idea of a TIGER BEING LOOSE ON THE STREETS OF NEW YORK as anything other than a total emergency, and so they had to make it as nonthreatening as possible; with big eyes, rounded features, and a skinny frame.  I mean I know this isn’t the most REALISTIC movie out there but it still feels like a stretch to show this carnivorous creature as the most adorable and unthreatening creature in the whole movie.  On top of that, Kevin Hart is a lot more obnoxious in this movie than he was in the last one.  He’s in the movie a lot more, his edge has been completely removed, and he doesn’t’ have nearly as many other characters to bounce off of like he did in the first one.  Sure he’s got Tiffany Haddish’s character who is one of the better additions in this, but his material wears thin way too quickly.

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Well… I guess he can’t be any worse than what they did with Henry Cavill.

Yeah, I honestly don’t have much to say about this one.  Once all is said and done, it’s only a fraction better than the first one which is a rather mediocre bar in the first place.  I always try to give an opinion to the best of my abilities when reviewing a movie and try to find some sort of unique idea to expand upon, but there’s just so little here that the most interesting thing about it is how much it plays it safe and aims low.  I’ve certainly seen worse movies this year, but it’s still not something I would recommend going out to see in the theaters.  Even seeing it gets a home release feels like a waste of time considering how slight the finished product ends up being, but the episodic format at least keeps things moving and the animation is nice enough on its own that it’s not worth discarding outright.  Hey, say what you will for room temperature tap water, it’s still a lot more drinkable then… I don’t know, whatever beverage Wonder Park is.  Seawater and pop rocks?

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