Milking human’s collective affection for our furry and feathered pals, the original “The Secret Life of Pets” imposed the “Toy Story” formula on animals living in New York City in order to show us what they do when we are not looking. That first feature in what is now a franchise, directed by Chris Renaud and written by Brian Lynch, was generally mediocre but succeeded at introducing an odd group of characters with peoplelike personalities, rendered mildly humorous in the context of the pet realm. In other words, it was fine.
“The Secret Life of Pets 2,” on the other hand, for which both Renaud and Lynch reprise their roles, effectively acts as an animated ode to heteronormativity, toxic masculinity and patriarchal worldviews, passed off as harmless plot points to entertain young audiences.
In truth, there’s a thin line between the qualities the film attributes to its protagonists solely because they are animals, and those they are using to create parallels with how its creators believe reality should function. Though some of these messages may have been suppressed in its predecessor, in this one they are jarringly visible.
“Pets 2’s” descent into the bowels of what reads as conservative messaging begins as Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper), Max’s owner, randomly meets a young man, quickly marries and has a child. In this fictional universe, that’s clearly the only natural progression of events in a woman’s life. That trope is later reinforced through the pet characters.
Although initially jealous of Katie’s son, Liam, Max (now voiced by Patton Oswalt after disgraced comedian Louis CK was ousted from the part) soon discovers the kid is not his enemy but a loving companion and his responsibility. Quickly, once Max’s stress about protecting the boy is established, the narrative fragments into three separate stories that give us the sense of watching an episodic series.
As Max and big dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet) travel to the countryside with their family, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) is tasked with taking care of Max’s favorite chew toy, a busy bee. Not surprisingly, her driving motivation for doing this is her dream of marrying and having a family with Max, not unlike Katie’s life in the human world. To achieve this, she partners with dismissive cat Chloe (Lake Bell), but in no way can “Pets 2” possibly pass the Bechdel test.
Meanwhile, former villain Snowball (Kevin Hart) believes himself a superhero. Wearing a shiny outfit, the bunny vows to help small dog Daisy (an underused Tiffany Haddish) rescue a tiger from a circus run by heavily accented, Eastern European, clichéd bad guy Sergei (Nick Kroll). This section of “Pets 2” includes a 2-D animated segment that showcases Snowball’s adventures as a crime fighter. It serves as an aesthetically refreshing oasis in a desert of mostly bland CG animation.
In case it wasn’t obvious, “Pets 2” makes no attempt at diversifying the notion of what a family is today. No same-sex couples are in sight as pet owners, much less as parents. Nothing that deviates from the default straight married couple is even hinted at. Even Disney, in its insipid and unsatisfying manner, has already started the move toward mainstream inclusion of different kinds of families.
Making matters worse, Harrison Ford is cast as Rooster, a hyper-masculine shepherd dog brazenly teaching Max how to toughen up. Rooster shames Max for going to therapy and wearing a medical collar to prevent him from scratching himself out of stress. Ford’s character essentially stigmatizes mental illness and dismisses treatment as a made-up sign of weakness.
Rooster is the embodiment of phrases like “Men don’t cry,” and ” Rub some dirt on it.” This alpha dog rejects vulnerability by preaching about how sissified city dogs are. The character is disturbing in his unapologetic validation of behavior society as a whole is trying to eradicate. He equates courage with arrogance and other outdated perceptions of manliness.
Defenders may argue it’s absurd to attribute such weight to an animated feature, but on the contrary, this is the content to which we should be paying the most attention. Family-friendly releases have the power to communicate nuggets of knowledge to young viewers, and when the information transmitted is this regressive, it’s worth raising the alarm.
Late in the film, Snowball’s owner dresses him in a pink princess attire, lipstick included, but just when we might think this is Kevin Hart’s way of saying, “Look, I’m not that homophobic; my character is a tough guy but he can also embrace femininity,” the bunny rips off the outfit and dons chains, baggy clothes and a hat to rap about how macho he actually is.
It’s ridiculous, but also rather insidious, as if the fear of being perceived as anything but a virile male is so ingrained in him, he can’t even allow a fluffy animated character to be freed from those prejudices. Yes, it could be that screenwriter Brian Lynch devised the entire sequence, but unfortunately it comes across as too specifically resolved to the actor’s comfort. Such an ugly final note soils a movie that could have been merely an uninteresting cash grab, rather than a minefield of questionable impressions.