The Secret Life of Pets 2 (Photo: Universal)

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Chris Renaud
STARS Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart

One of the gargantuan hits of 2016 — in these here United States of America, only Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War grossed more — The Secret Life of Pets squandered its enormous potential by turning out to be just one more animated effort about plucky heroes embarking on a meaningful odyssey. Forget The Incredible Journey — instead, this was The Middling Time-Filler, with enough clever gags strewn throughout to keep it moderately engaging but nothing more.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is more or less the same — actually, less, since the increasingly mellow direction of its characterizations means that it has even less bite (comic, not dog) than its predecessor. In this outing, canine companions Max (Patton Oswalt, replacing the original’s Louis C.K. in the role) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) accompany their humans on a trip to a farm, where they become acquainted with a no-nonsense sheepdog named Rooster (Harrison Ford, in a toon variation of Jack Palance’s leathery cowhand in City Slickers). Meanwhile, the now-domesticated rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) has his hands — err, paws — full trying to rescue a docile tiger from a cruel circus owner (Nick Kroll).

The Max-Duke plotline is boilerplate while the Snowball section is frantic and unfunny. It’s actually the third storyline that unexpectedly provides the picture with any sense of mirth, as the Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) tries to retrieve Max’s favorite toy from an apartment owned by a cat lady (Meredith Salenger). This apartment is painted as a veritable house of horrors, with dozens of felines lurking in every shadow and under every chair. Vividly designed and anchored by a brilliant gag involving a laser pointer, this segment proves to be the cat’s meow in an otherwise neutered motion picture.

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