‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’: Max Discovers His Inner Dog

The old gang has returned for “Secret Life of Pets 2” to show everyone that a dog’s life (or rabbit, cat, or guinea pig, for that matter) can be hell. Like the first movie in the series, there are three main storylines, which over time converge into one exciting climax. Domestic dogs get the most respect.

In a New York City park, terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) declares his disgust for children to sloppy housemate Duke (Eric Stonestreet), but as they say, “never say never.” Leaving the park, Max’s human Katie (Ellie Kemper) has a cute meet where she falls (literally, of course) for Chuck (Pete Holmes). They marry and before Max understands what’s happening, Liam (Henry Lynch) is born. Liam terrorizes Max and Duke until the magical moment when the boy hugs Max and tells him he loves him.

From that moment on, Max’s life has new meaning. He is to protect and defend the young human. Max is devoted to a fault, and that fault is obsession. Max develops into the worst kind of helicopter dog going into a panic attack with every new danger that lurks behind every corner. Katie takes Max to a vet specializing in pet behavior, resulting in Max going home with a cone.

The story doesn’t take off until Max’s humans go on a car trip to the country with dogs and Liam in tow. Excited for the trip in the car, Max leaves his precious toy, Busy Bee, with Gidget (Jenny Slate), the love-struck Pomeranian who promptly loses the toy to an apartment full of hostile cats and their passive Cat Lady (Meredith Salenger).

No longer the villain of the first movie, fuzzy white rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) has taken on a superhero persona, mask and cape and all. When a troubled Shi Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) seeks out Captain Snowball’s heroic help, the third storyline begins. Daisy recruits Snowball’s help to rescue a white tiger cub Hoo from the evil clutches of Sergei’s “Circus of Fun.”

“The Secret Life of Pets 2” boasts a number of clever set pieces. The Cat Lady’s apartment is a dog’s worst nightmare, but it is worth it for the wonderful scenes where the spoiled house cat Chloe (Lake Bell) teaches Gidget how to be a cat. And with that knowledge, Gidget can infiltrate the Cat Lady’s apartment and rescue the favorite toy of her beloved. Meanwhile, the “Circus of Fun” is anything but, with the period atmosphere of an old Universal horror film. Its owner Sergei (Nick Kroll), with his Slavic accent and wardrobe straight out of the wicked witch from “The Wizard of Oz,” is nightmarishly brutal — surprising for a children’s film.

Max, Duke and Liam journey to the countryside farm of Chuck’s uncle. Raised in the city, Max and Duke struggle to adjust to a world of strange and powerful smells. The alpha dog, Rooster (Harrison Ford), is a commanding presence, unsympathetic to Max’s neurotic intensities or even his cone, which he removes with a snap.

The film climaxes with a stunning animated sequence. A period train barrels through jagged mountains and pine forests in the moonlight. Vicious wolves chase Max while Sergei’s sadism grows.

The ensemble voice talent is excellent. Kevin Hart repeats his role as Snowball. He waxes heroic and then raps the end title song. Jenny Slate as Gidget is adorable. But it is Harrison Ford who informs the role of Rooster with quiet authority, speaking only when needed and then with great power. Ford’s Rooster forces Max to examine his inner self and find the self-confidence necessary to perform his role as Liam’s protector. Patton Oswalt replaces Max’s original voice actor Lewis C.K. in light of C.K.’s troubled recent history.

Directed by Chris Renaud, who directed the original, “The Life of Secret Pets 2” is a delightful story that starts slow, but builds to a suspenseful climax. It is a clever story that is smart and heartfelt enough to appeal equally to kids and adults.

The Secret Life of Pets 2” opens June 7 nationwide.