Secret Life of Pets 2
Directed by: Chris Renaud, Jonatha Del Val
Written by: Brian Lynch
Starring: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Haddish
There are films where, from the first five minutes, a viewer can already tell precisely the turns a story will take. Whether it’s from experience or just understanding how storytelling works, there will not be a single frame in the subsequent film that will leave any doubt as to where the story will end up, as each scene will all but signal the purpose it serves in the overall narrative. Where, much like the oncoming signs when one is driving, one can foresee the beats of the film in question coming a mile away. Such is the lot of signpost movies.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is a signpost movie. For it, the biggest signpost comes in the opening sequence where lead dog Max is paired up with his owner’s son, Liam. Specifically, it’s when Max mentions in voiceover how dangerous the world is for the young toddler. From there, anyone could guess what the overall theme of the film will be. There are no gasp-inducing plot revelations, no shocking swerves to White God levels of animal violence (though kudos if Illumination were ever to try that), and it provides a moral that has been seen in over a dozen family films before it: Parents. You’ve got to stop being so overprotective!
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a medium’s story playing out the way you expect it to. The final season of Game of Thrones exemplified precisely how not to subvert an audience’s expectations, with plot threads and character turns that seemed to be pulled out of thin air. Sometimes, the best way to tell a story to an audience is by letting it play out exactly as they hoped it would.
It’s when the beats are not told in a way that feels organic, or when the story aggressively tells the audience “THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING” that the spell is broken. At 85 minutes, SLOP 2 is a very trim, tight motion picture. What it loses is an opportunity for the characters to forge a connection with the audience.
Take, for instance, the curmudgeonly Rooster, played charmingly by the resident curmudgeon king, Harrison Ford. Rooster is depicted as being a figure of respect on his farm. When he howls, the animals freeze and turn. Even behind the voice of a talking animal, Harrison Ford is one that commands respect. His biggest role in the film is to serve as a mentor figure for Max, played amiably by Patton Oswalt. Only… we get to know very little about Rooster as a character. He’s a figure of authority on his farm, he seems to have the respect of the rest of the farm’s animals, and has little dialogue beyond telling Max to be less scared.
Compare him to Gill, the scarred fish from Finding Nemo. Gill similarly is a figure of respect in his little commune, in his case, a fish tank. He too serves as a mentor to the titular Nemo, someone trying to teach him to let go of his fears. But he also tells a story where he stresses the importance of something else: failure. Gill wants nothing more than to escape his tank and into the ocean. “My first attempt,” he says, indicating his scars, “landed on dental tools.” It’s a small moment, but an important one. A scene where Gill is more than just a mentor figure. He’s someone who’s literally felt the pain of defeat, and it’s a moment that humanizes him to both Nemo and the audience.
Rooster doesn’t have that. Instead, he does little more than tell Max when he’s wrong, then, when Max performs what is very heavily signaled as his big ACT OF BRAVERY, he earns the respect of Rooster, who leaves the film around five minutes later. The plot finally passes his signpost of MENTOR FIGURE.
This is all a roundabout way to say that The Secret Life of Pets 2 is, in a word, safe. There isn’t anything in this film that would be of a surprise to anyone. The cast performs their jobs competently, the animation is passable, and it will satisfy children and at least be tolerable for adults. Neither party will find the events of this product offensive or surprising in the least. But even for movies that signal exactly how they will turn out, there are still better options.