A New York City canine appoints himself guardian over a human toddler in “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” a movie that could have been a poignant comedy about the pleasures and horrors of modern child rearing. The filmmakers decided against that, however, and instead opted for a silly, scattered, sporadically amusing kiddie movie.
It was probably too much to ask that this sequel live up to 2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets,” an unexpectedly clever and touching film about what your pets do when you’re not at home. The buddy comedy about two domestic dogs who accidentally join a gang of feral strays was wildly contrived but, thanks to several heartwarming moments, hard to resist.
The sequel makes resisting easier. Writer Brian Lynch and director Chris Renaud (both returning) cobble together three wisp-thin plotlines that, added together, still barely qualify as a full-length feature. The main story concerns Max (Patton Oswalt), a terrier who becomes obsessed with protecting his owner’s toddler, Liam (Henry Lynch). A side story involves the pampered Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), who must retrieve a toy from an apartment filled with mangy cats. Least convincing is the tale of Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a Shih Tzu who appears out of nowhere and convinces Snowball (Kevin Hart), an excitable rabbit, to rescue a tiger cub from evil circus owner Sergei (Nick Kroll).
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Speaking of circus animals, let’s address the elephant in the room: Max was originally played by comedian Louis C.K., whose name would no longer look so good on the movie posters. Oswalt replaces him smoothly and gives Max’s voice an added quaver of neurosis, which works. After all, Max spends much of the movie wearing a plastic cone to stop his compulsive scratching. “My therapist says I need it,” he explains.
If nothing else, The “Secret Life of Pets 2” will go down in history as the animated film debut of Harrison Ford. He plays Rooster, a gruff farm dog who helps Max face his fears and find his confidence. The movie comes to life in these scenes, partly because we finally hear a message with some meaning, and partly because Ford naturally exudes American masculinity, even as a cartoon dog. “There,” Rooster says, ripping off Max’s cone. “You’re cured.”
All told, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is bound to give you a chuckle or two, and maybe even an “awww” moment. The bar this movie clears, though, could have been set a lot higher.
Review: 2 stars
Cast: The voices of Patton Oswalt, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford
Rating: PG (brief rude humor)
Running time: 1:26