Instead of a bucket of popcorn, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” might be best viewed with a heaping bowl of sugar-coated breakfast cereal.
The latest madcap movie from the “Minions” masterminds at Illumination Entertainment boasts a distinctive Saturday morning cartoon vibe, as if several “Looney Tunes” and “Tom & Jerry” segments have been spliced with sequences from “Up” and “Lady and the Tramp.” The results are episodic, but a significant storytelling upgrade from the weird and jumbled mess of the 2016 franchise starter.
Another upgrade: Patton Oswalt (Disney’s “Ratatouille”) replaces the since-disgraced Louis C.K. as Max, a neurotic New York City terrier who has settled into sharing his home with shaggy, sunny mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet) just in time for more change: Their owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper) falls in love, gets married and gives birth to a son named Liam.
Max initially views the child as a scary scream machine but quickly falls in love with the toddler, vowing to protect the boy from any danger – and soon becomes such a compulsive worrier that he develops a scratching problem, a pet therapist appointment and a plastic cone around his neck.
The canines accompany their family on vacation to a working farm, where Max learns to master his fears with the help of the gruffly competent cow dog Rooster (scene-stealer Harrison Ford unleashing his grumpy old man schtick with relish).
Meanwhile, the sprawling menagerie of Max’s NYC pet pals get into their own hijinks. Left to guard Max’s favorite toy, pampered Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) lets the beloved ball bounce through an open window into the local cat lady’s apartment. The pup’s plan to infiltrate the peevish pack of toms and tabbies involves taking lessons in how to pass as a feline from the quintessential cat Chloe (the deliciously droll Lake Bell).
Taking his grade-school owner’s playtime make-believe to heart, blustering bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) develops a superhero alter ego, whom newcomer Daisy (current comedy “it girl” Tiffany Haddish), a bighearted Shih Tzu, recruits to help rescue an abused white tiger cub from a cruel circus owner (Nick Kroll) and his pack of wolves.
Just as bouncing between the storylines becomes too tiresome to take, they all merge into a frenetic finale on a speeding circus train.
Often uproarious and aw-inducingly adorable, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a marked improvement on its predecessor, and returning director Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me 2”) wisely keeps the sequel short and sweet, even when it means that several members of the all-star voice cast – like Stonestreet, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress and Bobby Moynihan – are barely heard.
Like sugary cereal and Saturday morning cartoons, these zany pet tales are most enjoyable in modest servings.