Depending on how you feel about the Minions and their jibber-jabbering, bug-eyed brand of yellow-blob mayhem, the fact is that the animated features from Illumination Entertainment are pretty second-tier stuff. These movies occupy that vast middle ground between Pixar’s meticulous objets d’art and the flavorless conveyor-belt gruel that gets programmed around the clock on Nick Jr. For the most part, they’re totally harmless diversions just solid enough to keep the kiddos occupied for two hours give or take on a rainy Saturday.
The studio’s breezy, busy 2016 ‘toon The Secret Life of Pets didn’t do anything to elevate the brand – nor to harm it. It was a sporadically funny take on that unoriginal old premise: What kinds of trouble do our beloved canine and feline pals get up to while we’re away? Three years later, I couldn’t tell you a thing about it other than the fact that Kevin Hart lent his yappy, overcaffeinated persona to a fluffy white rabbit named Snowball and Louis C.K. was the voice of the film’s lead mutt, Max.
Both of those stars have gotten into their fair share of hot water in the three years since the original hit theaters. But only one of them — the decidedly un-kid-friendly, serial masturbator C.K. — was deemed too toxic for the new sequel, The Secret Life of Pets 2. In his place, we now have Patton Oswalt, a solid substitution no doubt added in the hopes that some of his charmed Ratatouille mojo might rub off on this franchise. It didn’t.
The big plot wrinkle this time around is that Max and his big, dumb, furball pal Duke (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet) now have to share their cramped New York City apartment with a new pint-sized roommate. Their owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) has recently gotten married and has just given birth to a baby boy. At first, the screaming infant cramps Max’s style and steals the spotlight, but in short order he becomes neurotically overprotective of the tyke.
That set-up is certainly enough to hang a 15-minute Looney Tunes short on, but it’s a slight scaffolding for a feature. So writer Brian Lynch and directors Chris Renaud and Jonathan del Val pile on a bunch of B-plots that feel like wheel-spinning. Hart’s hyped-up bunny Snowball has a superhero alter ego and keeps fumbling his attempt to help a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) save a white tiger from an evil circus. Max’s smitten pal Gidget (Jenny Slate) poses as a cat to rescue a kid’s toy from the apartment of an old lady straight out of a Sylvester and Tweety Bird one-reeler. And Max and Duke go on a trip to a farm upstate, where they clash and then bond with a gruff, herding alpha dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford. Nope, not a typo. And yes, he’s the highlight).
As 86-minute kids’ movies go, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is shockingly padded. It’s the same old dogs with no new tricks. After a while, it either doesn’t know where to go or you just stop caring. The smile on your face in the first act starts to feel more like an obligatory plastered-on grin by the third. In other words, it’s the definition of “perfectly fine.” Still, it might seem like a better bargain in the on-demand comforts of one’s own living room than in the sticker-shock showroom of a multiplex.