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Children’s films are among the easiest franchise fodder that Hollywood still has to fall back on. When your first movie draws enough families into the theaters, you’re pretty much able to do what you want with your follow-up, and safely plan ahead for at least one more movie.

Just because this strategy works doesn’t mean it needs to be executed, however, because in the worst case scenario, a sequel like The Secret Life of Pets 2 is made: a film that doesn’t learn any of the storytelling lessons that the first film should have taught its creators, and instead doubles down on its flaws.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 picks up not too long after the resolution of The Secret Life of Pets, and sees our main characters dealing with some new life changes. Max (Patton Oswalt) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) are living comfortably, and getting used to the joys of parenting the little human they now live with, while Snowball (Kevin Hart) is moonlighting as a superhero and Gidget (Jenny Slate) is left babysitting Max’s favorite squeaky toy.

New characters are introduced to serve as the connective threads to those stories, as an old dog (Harrison Ford) is trying to teach Max some new tricks, and a new dog (Tiffany Haddish) is preparing to embroil the entire pet community in a caper involving a smuggled tiger.

You can begin to see where The Secret Life of Pets 2 starts to lose its more story-attentive audience members, as much like The Secret Life of Pets, there are too many characters doing their own thing to really focus too much on one storyline. What makes this sequel even harder to follow is the fact that the focus splits into three different narratives that are being told at the same time.

If they all tied together organically by the end of director Chris Renaud’s second go-around on the Secret Life of Pets train, it would all be worth the effort. But with so many plot plates spinning throughout the movie, the story tends to almost always shift to another plotline just as you’re getting comfortable with one avenue or another.

On the more positive side, while the focus is lacking, the performances in The Secret Life of Pets 2 are actually pretty good. In particular, Patton Oswalt’s stepping into the role of Max in place of Louis CK makes for an actual improvement to the character, as his vocal acting skills are the perfect fit for the wired terrier as he riffs rather well with the entire cast.

Then there’s Harrison Ford’s Rooster, a role that amounts to basically the most supporting of supporting characters, but he still manages to make quite an impression. Using his trademark deadpan gruffness, Ford gets some of the movie’s few good laughs, and even forges a solid storyline with Oswalt’s Max, who is trying to be more tough. If there were a story on which this film should have hung its narrative hat, it’s this one.

This ultimately bundles all of the problems The Secret Life of Pets 2 has into one, convenient package. There are just too many good cast members, and way too many characters on screen for anyone to really get to shine as often as they should. With such strong personalities at play, this colorfully drawn film is a total mess when it comes to trying to teaching any sort of lesson in a cohesive manner. Is the lesson to be brave? To depend on your friends? Or maybe even to just chill out and enjoy life? If any of those lessons are to be taken from this film, they’re written in the cinematic equivalent of trying to read a fortune cookie from a speeding bus.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when it comes to The Secret Life of Pets 2, it would have been nice if someone had taught this franchise any tricks at all. For a movie that has a poster featuring a dog wearing a sign that says “Don’t Laugh,” it’s not hard to obey the command that’s given.

4 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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