20 June 2019

First Impressions: The Secret Life of Pets 2

That's right. This was...such a weird movie. In reality it wasn't actually a movie at all. It was more three unrelated stories strung together for eighty minutes. But more on that later. SPOILERS to follow about The Secret Life of Pets 2 (2019).

I actually just watched The Secret Life of Pets (2016), so that was nice and fresh. In the intervening three years a lot has happened, namely lead little dog voice actor Louis C.K. was out, Patton Oswalt in. Kevin Hart is still here as a maniacal little rabbit named snowball. Is he still okay to like? Take of that what you will.

The Secret Life of Pets was a pretty surprise hit back in 2016. Never underestimate the appeal of a bunch of cute animated talking animals. It comes from Illumination, which is NBC / Universal's animation branch, primarily known for Minions movies. Pets has little hints of this, and a nice minion introduction just to remind you of the studio's bread and butter. Twinkie and butter?

Snowball's superhero name is Captain Snowball.
Next up, Captain Steve Rogers.

Unfortunately, the studio has then become known for somewhat diminishing returns. Despicable Me remains their highest rated (81%) and most sentimentally adored film. That being said, they haven't quite entered DreamWorks levels of pop culture regurgitation and celebrity worship, but they're close. More importantly, though, their films tend to find a way to become financially successful. How the hell did Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (2018) find a way to $270 million last year?

From an animation standpoint I tend to be turned off by Illuminations' fan of giant heads and bodies with tiny feet and arms. It's off-putting to me for some reason. Having said that, their backgrounds are awesome. I loved Pets' interpretation of a massive, endless glistening New York City. There is a sense of frenetic action and purposeful unrealism that modern CGI, namely Pixar tends to avoid. SONY Animation, for all its wretchedness actually does animated slapstick really well. It keeps me interested in the Hotel Transylvania series of all things.

The heavenly depiction of New York in Pets borders on irresponsible with how clean and crime-free it looks, but that movie found contrast between the silver shine of the city and the grimy underground of flushed and forgotten pets. This all came together into a coherent story of Louis C.K. dog loving his master until a newer, bigger, wilder dog is introduced. They then get lost, find the misfit pets and need to escape to get back before their master notices them gone.

Holy shit.

Sorry, I just realised this is the plot of Toy Story (1995). Okay, okay - moving past that.

It's fine and entertaining and full of really genuine pet / owner moments that earn a handful of chuckles. It's not thematically dense or anything, but it's also really not trying to be. We often talk around here of how a film can accomplish its own goals, which I think Pets does, it's just not a far goalpost. To be real honest, it was a whole lot better than I had been led to believe and I could stand to have this play in the background for like two months straight if I had kids who got into it.

Pets 2 mystified me. The basic premise is that Patton Oswalt dog's owner gets hitched and cranks out a baby, which the pups are at first wary of, but then grow to love and eventually be overprotective. The helicopter parent analogy is pretty clear here. They then journey out to the farm for reasons that are never explained (I suppose that keeps with the dog's perspective and it also doesn't quite even matter) and meet a dog voiced my Harrison Ford who thinks the city dogs are pussies (ha) and is way more into an old school way of parenting.

It wasn't until long after the cinema that I found myself wondering who this plot was even for. Are kids like "Yeah, mom and dad - don't raise me like that!" Would they even pick up on it? I liked that it was at least an indictment against helicopter parents and not Millennials, which tends to be an easy target in films like this filled with old folks who don't understand that thar Ol' Intranets. And Harrison Ford actually does a fantastic job and doesn't even sound that grouchy.

There are good sheep jokes but there is truly no place for Eric Stonestreet dog. It's tough when his very presence was the central conflict of the first film. He just kind of exists here. They could have developed him a little more - say he sides against Oswalt dog and when Harrison Ford shows up there's more conflict there when he justifies a lot of what he's been saying the whole movie.

Apparently they didn't have time for all that, though, because there are two whole unrelated stories at play here. The first is Jenny Slate dog learning how to pretend to be a cat in order to infiltrate an old cat lady's apartment to steal back a chew toy Patton Oswalt lost.

And don't get me wrong - this bit is hilarious and works exceptionally well as its own 20-minute short. But what the hell is this doing intercut with two other unrelated stories in a feature-length film? The old lady gangsta pay-off as she kills the Evil Circus Owner at the end who she definitely did not know is fantastic, but narratively this film is insane.

Yes, Evil Circus Owner - voiced by Nick Kroll and dressed like the Wicked Witch of the West for some reason. Russian because Evil German was too on the nose I guess, but the last vignette involves Kevin Hart Snowball bunny dressed as a superhero (because superheroes are popular) teamed up with Tiffany Haddish (because Haddish is popular) to free an imprisoned White Tiger. Again, this all works better than it sounds. Haddish is a little miscast - her character is surprisingly relaxed and calm and doesn't seem to take advantage of her raspy, excitable voice. Still, it's a fun Night School (2018) reunion. Did ya'll see Night School?

This Tiger-saving ends up being the thing that Oswalt dog needs to do to prove his bravery at the end of the film, but considering he has never met this Tiger or Tiffany Haddish it feels really weird and empty. All the stakes are there and even the proper build-up, but then they switch out the hero for one who is in better need of the hero moment. It's bizarre. Like, it fits Oswalt's story but...isn't.

Pets 2 works as a series of vignettes and it's fun to play around in this world for a little bit. That's essentially all that's going on here, though. It's playing and spending a little more time with these characters. The jokes land and kids will be entertained (I think a little more by the latter two vignettes, but whatever), but this is such a weirdly structured movie. It's like as if Four Rooms (1995) or Amores Perros (2000) was set in the Secret Life of Pets universe. I'd actually like to see a little more of this. I suppose what threw me off the most was waiting for these stories to intersect or to find meaning in parallel to each other. Like, imagine if Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker (2019) is just three separate stories in the Star Wars Universe. Okay, that might actually be awesome, but my brain spent more time trying to piece together what was happening than enjoying the cuteness.

Anyway, I've whined a lot but I generally liked this for the same reason I liked the first film. They just nail pet/owner relationships so well, it's a familiar chuckle, and Lake Bell, Harrison Ford, Dana Carvey, and Jenny Slate all give some legit great voice performances. Upon second viewing it would be nice to relax and enjoy cuteness. Also notable is the simple fact that this film made no attempt to simply re-do the plot of the first film, which often befalls these kinds of movies. It knows what it wants to be and then is that. Tougher than it looks.

What did you think of Pets 2? What the hell will they do with Pets 3

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