You get three stories for the price of one in the 100% Louis CK-free “The Secret Life of Pets 2.” The episodic sequel to the 2016 animated hit front loads a lot of plot into its snappy 87 minutes but doesn’t forget to blend in life messages for kids on finding inner courage. “The first step in not being afraid,” says wily old sheepdog Rooster (Harrison Ford), “is acting like you are not afraid.”
Jack Russell Terrier Max, previously voiced by CK, now sounds like Patton Oswalt. He and his odd couple pal, the shaggy Newfoundland mix Duke (Eric Stonestreet), now must now share their Brooklyn home with a new roommate, their owner’s (Ellie Kemper) new baby Liam. The toddler’s presence raises Max anxiety level—”He is perfect,” Max says fretfully, “and I will keep him safe.”—until the family takes a trip to the country and he meets Rooster, a Yoda-like character who teaches him to be himself and not be an overprotective helicopter parent for Liam.
Meanwhile Max’s girlfriend, a vivacious Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), must take lessons in how to act like a tabby from her catnip-loving feline friend Chloe (Lake Bell) to rescue Max’s favorite squeaky toy from an apartment overrun by cats.
Then, when Molly (Kiely Renaud) starts dressing bunny and former flushed pet Snowball (Kevin Hart) in cute superhero pajamas he believes the hype and behave like a movie crime fighter. His skills are tested when a brave Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) asks him to assist on a dangerous mission. “I don’t mean to sound dramatic,” she says, “but a poor defenseless animal needs saving.”
Themes of inner courage and facing fears are woven through each story and come together the last twenty minutes or so as the pets all join forces.
The Gidget and Snowball storylines have the kind of playfulness you expect from Illumination, the company that gave us the anarchic jellybean-shaped Minions. Max’s life-altering adventures on the farm, which take up a great deal of the scant running time, feels borrowed from other, better kid-friendly fare like the “Toy Story” franchise.
The voice work is a mixed bag. Ford is a howl as the gruff old timer who imparts life-changing advice. If they do another of these “Pets” movies he should graduate to main character status. Slate is a hyperactive bundle of energy and Hart and Haddish are a fun duo that add much spark to their segment. Oswalt, so distinctive in “Ratatouille,” doesn’t teach Max any new tricks.
“The Secret Life of Pets 2” feels like three episodes of a “Pets” television show banged together to (almost) feature length. Pet lovers may recognize and enjoy some of the behavior—a cat coughing up a hairball on her sleeping owner and the protective nature of Max and Rooster—but it won’t beat spending the day with your real-life, cuddly pet.