Illumination Entertainment has returned with a second installment in their new Pets franchise that proves once again that they are masters at delivering dazzling and attention grabbing storytelling for young children. This may be a fluke, but every single child in my showing was focused on everything happening on screen. There were no multiple trips to the bathroom, no bickering between siblings and friends, just smiles and laughs of dozens of young voices on every punchline intended for their tiny minds. However, the studio continues to struggle at balancing silly slapstick humor with the emotional complexity and depth that Dreamworks and Disney/Pixar have proven to be masters at. Most parents may share more than a few chuckles with their kids, but the movie is made for those kids, and perhaps for those kids alone.
The film begins with the separation of three main story lines: in the first, Max is forced to come to terms with another life change after Katie gets married and brings home baby Liam. As Max’s affection for the little guy grows, so too does his overprotective nature; in the second, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the fiery little bunny, who was adopted at the end of the first movie, is now trying to live up to the identity given to him by his new owner, Captain Snowball, a brand new superhero; the third and final of the separated story threads belongs to Gidget, who is tasked by Max to take care of his favorite ball when he goes on a trip outside of New York with Katie and the rest of their family unit. Each thread is entertaining and holds at minimum an interesting lesson each character must learn that is also a lesson kids may need to learn. Unfortunately, because all of our principal characters are separated from each other for the majority of the film, the impact each lesson can have only goes so far.
What allows each of these stories to thrive though is the great voice acting of its cast. Patton Oswalt takes over voice duties after replacing Louis C.K. in the role. The decision to replace him was an easy one based off of what C.K. has done in his personal and professional life, meaning Illumination does not deserve too much credit for following through on replacing him, but they do deserve credit for hiring Oswalt. Oswalt has provided his voice for numerous roles in television and film before, most notably as rat-chef Remy in Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille, and he provides that same level of energy and youthful exuberance to this role, and let me say that he does such a phenomenal job replacing his counterpart, that I wish this was Oswalt’s franchise from the beginning.
Max and his family are taken to a farm upstate belonging to Katie’s husband’s uncle, where Max and Duke meet an elder watchdog named Rooster, voiced by Harrison Ford, who teaches Max the consequences of being overprotective of Liam, and why it is important to let the kid make mistakes that he can learn from.
Tiffiany Haddish joins the show with the new character, Daisy, and tags along with Snowball after seeking out the help of his superhero skills. Together they investigate a mysterious circus after Daisy witnessed a tiger being locked up in a cage at the airport. Her mission for Snowball is to locate the tiger and rescue him from the abusive circus owner Sergei, played by Nick Kroll. Haddish and Hart continue their great chemistry from Night School, with Haddish often providing the bigger laugh, proving more and more that she needs bigger roles to continue to share her talents.
Jenny Slate returns to voice Gidget, the hyper small dog with a crush on Max, hence why she agrees to protect Max’s favorite ball, pretending that the two are together and the ball is their child. She quickly loses control of the ball though to a dark apartment littered, (pun intended) with a near infinite amount of cats belonging to an older woman sitting on a sofa chair watching TV. To retrieve the ball, Gidget turns to Chloe (Lake Bell), who teaches her everything she needs to know about being a cat, leading to a hilarious heist attempt.
Eventually all three stories merge together, but for no other reason than they had to. Max and Duke return home to their apartment and fall asleep next to Liam. Snowball and Daisy are sneaking through and just happen to wake Max up as the wolf trackers belonging to Sergei spot them coming out of Liam’s window, causing Max to join the fray. This makes Sergei the villain of the story by proxy. He is a one-note caricature and stereotype of the classic cartoon villain. There is no complexity to him other than the fact that he looks menacing and he whips a tiger. Defeating him allows the threads to merge together properly on a technical plot level, but there is no emotional element to it because this is the true end of the Snowball thread. Gidget and Max have no connection to what is going on other than that they are friends with snowball. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from Illumination, but with so many animated children stories out there now that are able to balance child humor and emotional levity, you would think that Illumination would at least attempt to do the same. Perhaps the next one.