In hindsight, 10 days after my beloved dog suddenly died of cancer might have been the wrong time to watch The Secret Life of Pets 2.

When my dog Kirby was a puppy, he looked a lot like Max, the star of Secret Life 2 voiced by Patton Oswalt. He had adorable floppy ears, a brown spot on his side, and a big wet nose. The day we adopted him — while we were inside signing the paperwork! — our car got towed. So then we were standing on a street corner on the east side of Manhattan with this new, utterly terrified new dog and no way to get home. That was fun.

We picked Kirby at the shelter because he came over to my wife and I when we walked up to his cage, and because when we got some time with him he was so calm and sweet and never barked; he let me pick him up and put him on my lap and sat their while I loved on him. Turned out he wasn’t calm, he was gravely ill — with pneumonia, which we discovered a few days later at the vet. He recovered and turned into one of the most anxious dogs that ever walked the face of the earth. (They say your dog becomes a reflection of you and let me to tell you they are absolutely right.) With Kirby, things were never easy. But they were always worth it. That’s true love, I guess.

Life is not easy for anxious city dogs like Kirby and Max. They’re adopted into childless homes where they are the center of attention — hell, they are the children. They get long walks, endless treats, nightly cuddles. They’re treated like kings. And it’s good to be the king.

Then a baby shows up, and suddenly there is a new king (or queen, in my case)  — and the new king chases and beats them, and generally tortures them for several years. My three year old used to abuse poor Kirby relentlessly. She jumped on him and pulled his huge pointy ears and yanked out his fur by the tiny fistful. Now I catch her looking for him when we come home from a day out.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’ve decided to start my review of a bubbly kids movie with a depressing obituary for my dog. But I swear I have a point, and it is this: I speak from experience when I say that The Secret Life of Pets gets dogs — or at least it does when it tries to, which is about two-thirds of the time. (We’ll get to the other third in a bit.) The writing as well as the sprightly character animation captures the spirit of these creatures at their absolute best and hilarious worst in a way every dog owner can recognize and relate to. When the film sticks to that, it works.

Secret Life of Pets 2

It does not always stick to that, though. That’s the other third I mentioned a minute ago. This is The Secret Life of Pets 2 and even if it wasn’t a sequel to The Secret Life of Pets 1 that title would work, because it feels two very different movies about pets spliced together for 95 minutes. One of those movies is an extremely affectionate, carefully observed story about dog behavior, with an overarching metaphor about helicopter parenting. The other movie is a ludicrous, extremely broad farce about a dog and a bunny trying to free an abused tiger from the circus. On their own they could both work; together, they make for some truly jarring cross-cuts, although both portions have their enjoyable moments.

Many of those moments in Max’s storyline involves a new pup he encounters during a family trip to a farm, a no-nonsense herding dog named Rooster. As soon as Rooster’s introduced — surveying his kingdom from his home in a rusted out truck on a hill — you want the voice that comes out this old, disapproving beast to sound like Nick Nolte, Malcolm McDowell, or Philip Baker Hall. Somehow, they got the only person more qualified and less likely to voice an ornery, butt-kicking shepherd in a cutesy movie about talking animals: Harrison Ford.

What a perfect vehicle for old Harrison Ford. His voice practically drips with contempt and frustration at Max’s every neurotic antic. I’m not sure you can technically dress down a dog, because they do not wear clothes, but whatever the dog version of that would be, Rooster does that to Max over a dog bowl, and it’s just a sensational scene. It’s impossible to imagine a more ideal teacher for dweeby Max in the ways of the wild.

I can pretty much promise that if that sounds funny to you, you’ll love every scene Ford’s Rooster is in. I can make no such guarantee for the bunny and the tiger, even though Kevin Hart voicing a loudmouth rabbit who thinks he’s a superhero is a solid idea on paper, and even though his partner in crime is a dog voiced by the even more delightful Tiffany Haddish. But their adventure is just so ... bizarre. They rescue a tiger from a circus? Then get chased by wolves? Then they hide the tiger in a New York apartment? Have the people who made this movie ever seen a New York apartment? You couldn’t hide a chew toy that looked like a tiger in one, much less a full grown wild animal.

I get it; this is a movie for children, and children are generally very dumb and need entertainment that caters to their basest instincts. And as that sort of thing goes, Hart and Haddish’s subplot is okay. The animation has a lot of energy, the actors are committed, and there’s another, loosely connected subplot involving a dog named Gidget (Jenny Slate) trying to rescue a toy from a cat lady’s home that plays like an amusingly nightmarish intermezzo between the larger storylines. While I was increasingly befuddled as the movie went on, and suddenly there were actual circus wolves running amok in New York City, I must concede I was never bored.

And I liked Max. He’s a good boy. He reminded me of Kirby. Although the very last scene got me a little emotional, it was generally not an unpleasant experience to be reminded of him so soon after he passed away. Even though Kirby often made my life difficult — like the time recently he ate my dinner, an entire rotisserie chicken bones and all, off our kitchen counter — I loved him with every molecule of my heart and soul. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is clearly made by people who feel the same way about the Kirbys in their lives.

Additional Thoughts:

-In the first The Secret Life of Pets, Max was voiced by Louis C.K. If there are any children reading this review, I urge you to ask your parents why Max sounds different and what happened to the guy who provided his original voice. They’ll really enjoy explaining it to you.

-I would watch a movie about the director of The Secret Life of Pets 2, Chris Renaud, pitching Harrison Ford on the idea of participating in a movie called The Secret Life of Pets 2 where he plays a gruff dog named Rooster.


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