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Animal farce – ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’

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We’ve all heard the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While it might not be true in all cases, it is certainly true in the case of “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” the latest offering from animation stalwart Illumination.

And you know? That’s OK.

Sure, one can look at “The Secret Life of Pets 2” as a tossed-off and somewhat cynical attempt to cash in on the surprisingly significant success of the first film (seriously – the first “TSLOP” did over $875 million at the global box office). You wouldn’t even necessarily be wrong to do so. But if there’s one thing that Illumination knows how to do, it’s to make you feel all right about handing over your cash.

This isn’t a great movie by any stretch – what story it has feels stitched together from a handful of discarded ideas and deemed good enough, all of it serving as a framework on which to hang the same kid-friendly pet-themed jokes and sight gags that we saw in the first film. However, that can often be enough – the kids in my screening certainly enjoyed it well enough.

Max (Patton Oswalt, TV’s “A.P. Bio”) is living in the city with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper, TV’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and his buddy Duke (Eric Stonestreet, TV’s “Modern Family”). He’s still friends with the other animals in the building as well – his kinda-girlfriend Gidget (Jenny Slate, “Venom”), aggressively indifferent kitty Chloe (Lake Bell, TV’s “Bless This Mess”) and the hyperactive bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart, “Night School”).

But Max’s idyllic life gets thrown into turmoil when Katie meets Chuck (Pete Holmes, TV’s “Crashing”). It’s not long before he’s moving in … and they’re getting married … and then, there’s a baby. Max is apprehensive of little Liam at first, but a few toddler hugs and Max is utterly devoted to the boy and keeping him safe – a devotion that starts veering toward neurosis.

From here, we have three basic plotlines:

First, we have Max and Duke heading off into the country to visit a farm. Taking the two city dogs out of their urban comfort zone goes about as well as you’d expect; farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford, “Blade Runner 2049”) doesn’t have a lot of use for the greenhorns, though Max is desperate for his approval, even as he continues with his overprotective ways.

Secondly, when Max left, he entrusted his favorite toy to Gidget so that she could keep an eye on it. She inadvertently loses it out a window; it eventually comes to rest in the apartment of an elderly lady and her many MANY cats. Gidget seeks out Chloe to help her learn enough about the way of the cat to blend in and rescue the toy.

Thirdly, we have Snowball. Sorry – CAPTAIN Snowball, the rabbit superhero. He is sought out by a dog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish, TV’s “Tuca & Bertie”), who wants Captain Snowball to help her rescue a captive white tiger from an evil Russian circus operator named Sergei (Nick Kroll, “Operation Finale”).

And then they all come together. Kind of.

“The Secret Life of Pets 2” comes off as a film that was Frankensteined together from the scraps of a half-dozen other writers’ room ideas. There’s a real feeling of disconnect between the myriad storylines; even when they come together, the seams are extremely visible. Director Brian Lynch, who co-directed the previous film and also helmed “Minions,” Illumination’s biggest hit to date, is highly competent and more than able to construct a movie to the studio’s specifications. And here’s the thing – those specifications lead to a LOT of money at the box office.

There’s nothing highbrow or sophisticated about this movie. This isn’t about winking and nodding to the grown-ups in the audience; aside from a couple of scattered references, “TSLOP 2” is aimed squarely and unerringly at the kiddos – and that’s a good thing. Films don’t have to be all things to all people, after all. Sometimes, a children’s movie can be that and only that.

The voice cast is low-key strong. Oswalt makes a solid replacement for the departed-under-icky-circumstances Louis C.K., bringing an awkward charm to his portrayal of Max. Hart is right in his glory; animation allows him to go as loudly over-the-top as he wants. Stonestreet’s a slobbery delight; Slate and Haddish are fine. Bell’s cat work is a definitely highlight, as is the appearance of Harrison Ford, whose gruff monotone proves unexpectedly effective as Rooster. And there’s a comedy who’s-who scattered throughout the rest of the ensemble – the aforementioned Kemper and Holmes and Kroll, plus Dana Carvey, Hannibal Burress, Bobby Moynihan and more.

“The Secret Life of Pets 2” isn’t a great movie, but that’s OK. No one expected greatness – at most, we’re looking for good enough-ness. And while yes, the film is formulaic and kind of forgettable, it is also perfectly adequate kiddie entertainment. Heck, if you adults keep your expectations relatively low, you might even derive a chuckle or two from the proceedings.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks … but sometimes the old tricks are entertaining enough.

[3 out of 5]

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