Dir: Chris Renaud; voiced by: Patton Oswalt, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell. Cert U, 86 mins
The Secret Life of Pets 2, the latest animated feature from the Illumination stable, is a definite upgrade on its predecessor. It’s full of zest, wit and charm even if its storyline is a bit of a dog’s dinner. The canine and feline characters are very vividly drawn and the human characters are sensibly kept well in the background.
Like a dog walker being dragged in multiple different directions, director Chris Renaud struggles to keep control of a story featuring many different pets, each pulling against the other. One strand of the narrative features Max (now voiced by Patton Oswalt instead of the disgraced comedian Louis CK), the scrappy Jack Russell terrier. He doesn’t like kids at all. He and Duke (an under-used Eric Stonestreet), the shaggy Newfoundland, are initially very unhappy when their owner Katie gets married and has a baby. “A tiny monster taking over,” is how Max characterises the new arrival, but he is very quickly won by the adorable little tot. It’s typical of the film’s erratic plotting that so much fuss is made of Max’s aversion to the baby – and then, moments later, he is cooing over it.
Another part of the story involves the fast-talking rabbit, Snowball (again voiced in motormouth fashion by Kevin Hart), and his efforts to rescue a white tiger from an evil circus owner.
The most endearing section of the film follows Gidget, the very precious and sniffy-nosed white Pomeranian who has to pass herself off as a cat to retrieve Max’s favourite squeezy toy. In one of the film’s more improbable scenes, this toy somehow slips out of her paws and ends up in a far away part of town.
The film also features an interlude on a country ranch where Max encounters the ruggedly macho and John Wayne-like sheepdog Rooster (voiced in drawling fashion by Harrison Ford), learns a few life lessons from him, rescues a little lamb, and discovers the joy of howling at the moon.
Director Renaud has a liking for day-glo colour with eye-popping reds and blues to the fore. The film opens with a sequence in Central Park in which the cherry trees are such a strident pink that you almost have to avert your eyes to avoid the glare. The animals here all look as sparkling and clean as if they’ve just been put through a cycle in the washing machine.
One of the most ingenious facets of the film is the way it mingles the animal and the human elements. The cats and dogs really do behave like cats and dogs. The animators have clearly studied the way they sniff, scratch, screech and claw the furniture in minute detail. Their movements are very lifelike. However, they talk and think like humans. Their neuroses are very human too. There’s a wonderful scene in which Max goes to the vet (who turns out to be a shrink for animals) and encounters hamsters with manic depression and dogs with personality disorders.
This may be a film aimed primarily at the kids but it has plenty of jokes to amuse the adults as well. It’s a deceptive affair, far more anarchic and subversive in its humour than its more infantile moments would suggest. Everything in the world of The Secret Life of Pets 2 is so bright and shiny that we don’t immediately register that we are watching puppies pooping in boots, babies eating the dog food and cats vomiting up rodents. The animals here may look cuddly enough but the film hasn’t hidden their feral qualities altogether. It wouldn’t take very much tinkering to make this film seem very savage indeed.
What makes this sequel so messy and inchoate is its wildly erratic narrative. The filmmakers pay far more attention to the pets than they do to the storyline about them. The end result is a film that plays like a series of short, zany self-contained sketches. They’re enjoyable enough in their own right but there is no sense here of an overarching vision or of a top dog calling the shots. Instead, everything is thrown together in the most haphazard way.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 hits UK cinemas 24 May
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