I just barely enjoyed 2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets.” The cutesy animated movie about house pets had to scratch and claw its way to a Two and a Half Star rating (now a B-) from me. I remember that the main story about cozy domestic dog Max (Louis C.K., a bad casting choice at the time and an even worse one in hindsight) having his world turned upside down by overbearing rescue Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the two having to learn to cooperate and share did nothing for me. Fortunately, that movie was saved by its supporting players, especially villainous bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart). Now comes a sequel that does not need to be saved by Kevin Hart (of all people), it’s funny at every turn.
Not long after the first movie, Max and Duke’s owner (Ellie Kemper) got married to loving schlub Chuck (Pete Holmes) and the two had a baby named Liam. Max (now voiced by Patton Oswalt in the film’s first brilliant decision) was at first worried that Liam would turn his world upside down, but has come to realize that he’s turning it upside down for the better. Skipping over the part where Max worries about the owner’s attention being divided like it was with Duke is the film’s second brilliant decision.
Max and Liam get along fine, and Max has even assumed the role of protector for the toddler. He takes the role seriously, so seriously that he’s beginning to hurt himself with anxiety attacks whenever he thinks Liam might be in danger, which is constantly. He has to wear a cone for the family’s trip to a farm, where he meets a gruff herding dog (Harrison Ford) with a different approach to… parenting, basically.
The farm storyline gives purpose to Max, Duke, and the humans. But the movie has many more marketable characters it wants to use. So it comes up with a story where pampered poodle Gidget (Jenny Slate) loses Max’s favorite toy in the home of a batty cat lady and has to reach out to wicked feline Chloe (Lake Bell) to teach her The Way of the Cat to get it back. That still doesn’t give everyone a purpose, so there’s yet another storyline about Snowball fancying himself a superhero and teaming up with a determined Shih Tzu (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a tiger from a deranged circus owner (Nick Kroll).
Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I saw the movie or maybe the writing and direction really are better this time around, but I thought that every joke in this movie landed perfectly. At no point was I rolling my eyes or thinking the humor was beneath me or wanting the movie to end. As if the well-executed humor wasn’t enough of a reason to see this movie, it is an animated movie about furry animals and a baby, so I shouldn’t have to tell you that it operates on the highest levels of cuteness.
I can’t say that the film holds up incredibly well under scrutiny. Storylines could be tightened, characters could be developed (Duke, a major physical presence, contributes almost nothing to the story). This movie isn’t painstakingly written and directed on the level of, say, a Pixar movie. But its flaws are well-hidden under layers and layers of fun. I wasn’t even out of the theater before I felt compelled to send my mom a text telling her how much I loved this movie. And if I’m in a hurry to recommend this movie to my own family, it’s only fitting that I highly recommend “The Secret Life of Pets 2” to you and your loved ones.
“The Secret Life of Pets 2” is rated PG for some action and rude humor. Its running time is 116 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.