Illumination’s “The Secret Life Of Pets” films do something the “Despicable Me” studio’s other offerings have yet to accomplish: They allow younger audiences to explore their feelings about new life experiences in a silly, lighthearted way through the travails of adorable animated animals. Despite being an overly loud and caustic clone of “Toy Story,” the first feature showed its target market that it’s perfectly okay to be frustrated about a new sibling joining the family. It gave kids and parents the fundamental tools to work through their difficulties, all with a healthy dose of slapstick.
Director Chris Renaud’s followup, “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” similarly spotlights the trepidation surrounding the arrival of a child. Only now, Renaud and returning screenwriter Brian Lynch deliver a lesson for the parents in the audience. Even though it poaches some themes and narrative structure from yet another Pixar classic (“Finding Nemo”), at least this time around the filmmakers demonstrate an essential understanding of the deeper elements that make that film work. This new installment stands as a celebration of pets’ endearing eccentricities, and a blessed respite from the live-action dog-centric weepies of late (“A Dog’s Journey,” “A Dog’s Way Home,” and the upcoming “The Art of Racing in the Rain”).
Loyal, lovable terrier Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt) thought his world was coming to an end when his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brought home big, shaggy mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet). However, he feels an even more dramatic shift in his sense of well-being after his owner marries and has her first child. Max’s worry over being a good protector to toddler Liam begins to manifest in bad habits and nervous tics like scratching at himself vigorously. He comes to see New York City, a glimmering beacon in a perpetual state of spring bloom, as an unrelenting obstacle course for hapless Liam, with mayhem and menace lurking under every grate and garbage can.
Sensing Max’s anxiety, Katie takes him to a behavior specialist, where the only help he gets for his psychological problems is a plastic cone. Humiliated by such a superficial solution, Max is stuck having to work through his lingering neuroses on a family trip to a sprawling farm outside the sparkling city. The change in atmosphere should lift his mood, but the pastoral paradise only terrifies him further, since he sees it as a battlefield full of frightening obstacles, like jagged cliffs and a terrorizing turkey. However, Max’s intimidating encounters with a grizzled, gruff, gravel-voiced herding dog, Rooster (Harrison Ford), lead him to uncover the courage to get over himself and his all-encompassing angst.
While Max’s main story unfolds away from home, Lynch’s screenplay invents two other threads to keep the other pets busy. Immediately before his trip, Max tasked puffy Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) to watch over his favorite squeaky toy, Busy Bee, which she immediately loses, of course. No sooner has Max left than the toy bounces all the way down the fire escape and into the dark, dank apartment of the building’s resident crazy cat lady. Now it’s up to gregarious Gidget, cantankerous cat Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell), pugnacious pug Mel (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), and determined dachshund Buddy (voiced by Hannibal Buress) to figure out a way to reclaim Max’s prized possession — a mission where most of the film’s comedic hijinks occur.
Expanding on one of the first film’s favorite characters, the sequel concocts an action-adventure storyline for Snowball (Kevin Hart), the insecure bunny who’s eager to prove that he’s not just some spoiled pet in satin pajamas. Reimagining himself as a kind of superhero, newly rechristened “Captain Snowball” agrees to help fearless Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) on a rescue mission. Their treacherous journey to liberate a white tiger held against its will steers them directly into the sights of a sadistic circus owner (Nick Kroll).
When the three stories finally intersect, and the filmmakers connect all these disparate elements, the execution isn’t effortless. Designating Max to shoulder the emotion, Gidget to carry the comedy, and Snowball to propel the action segregates these tonal qualities rather than integrating them fluidly. Max’s storyline putters out once he leaves the farm, and when he reunites with his friends, his selfless actions and motivations feel repetitive of his own breakthrough moment that happened minutes prior. Also, Gidget and Snowball could have closed their own arcs in a more satisfying fashion.
That said, thematic resonance and character stakes are stronger here than in the previous feature. Though each of the film’s fragments show characters demonstrating bravery and facing challenges head-on (valuable lessons for kids to learn), it’s the representation of helicopter parenting that provides palpable pathos. Neurotic, overprotective child-rearing isn’t a revolutionary subject for films, animated or otherwise. Still, it’s unusual for a typical Illumination broad comedy to include a heartrending message that makes parents feel less alone in their very real, visceral struggles. It’s just cloaked in a shenanigans-soaked romp about what pets do when humans aren’t looking.