I'm not going to go around calling 2016's The Secret Life of Pets a good movie, because it ain't. At best, it's a mid-tier film for Illumination, the animation studio best-known for those damn walking yellow Tic-Tacs with the prominent butt cheeks. Considering that Illumination's top tier only just surpasses "affable mediocrity", its middle tier is getting us into some heinous places indeed.

But I have distracted myself. The point is that The Secret Life of Pets is not good. But it still deserved more than The Secret Life of Pets 2, which is really and truly one of the most uninspired sequels that I think I have ever seen. Let us agree to set aside as an impossible fantasy of the airiest sort any chance that this was made because screenwriter Brian Lynch and director Chris Renaud passionately believed in the new story they'd devised to return us to this world. This was always going to be a cash-in project, inspired more by the first film's jaw-dropping box office receipts (it was the most profitable release of 2016) than by Renaud's muse. And what do we generally get when filmmakers are obliged to effortfully crap out a follow-up to a story that didn't need one? A brazen re-tread, exaggerating the plot points of the original but not fundamentally altering them at all.

That would appear to have been too much effort for SLOP2, which contains three more or less autonomous plot strands, and forgets to put a conflict into two of them. It's basically just 86 minutes of watching loosely-connected pet-themed gags play out (the running time is much the best thing about the film). And not gags that address the secret life of pets, what they get up to when humans aren't around. That conceit was used up by the 10-minute mark of the first movie. No, these gags are all heightened, inexplicably so, pointing in the direction of three different genres and deciding that plugging adorable CG animals into those genres will generate comedy through incongruity, or some such damn thing.

So anyway, the film opens with a whirlwind montage in which timid Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt, smoothly replacing the now-radioactive Louis C.K.) tells us all about how, shortly after he and his huge Newfie mix roommate Duke (Eric Stonestreet) learned to get along, their human owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) fell in love, got married, got pregnant, and had a son named Liam. Max, an inveterate child-hater, was angry at first, but as soon as Liam became verbal, the dog instantly fell in love, throwing himself into the role of protector. Indeed, he has grown so committed to saving Liam from every single thing in New York City that's even a little bit dangerous, he's developed an uncontrollably twitchy leg from nerves, and has been fitted with a plastic cone. That's right before the big family trip where all three humans and both dogs go to Katie's husband's uncle's farm upstate. Here, Max learns from the dour sheepdog Rooster (voice acting newbie Harrison Ford, who must have been ecstatic to find that there was a job he could literally phone in) to lighten up and not be so terrified of absolutely everything. That's the first genre: character drama about facing your fears.

Back in New York, Max left his most precious toy in the care of Gidget (Jenny Slate), the Pomeranian who desperately loves him. Upon promptly knocking the toy out the window, and finding it land in a lower apartment occupied by an old lady and dozens of cats, Gidget demands help from the studiously indifferent Chloe (Lake Bell), her best cat friend, to help infiltrate. #2: heist movie.

While this is all going on, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the white rabbit villain of the first piece, has been adopted by a girl in the same building, and his evil delusions have been replaced with heroic delusions; he fancies himself a superhero now. Somehow, word of this has gotten out into the world, since a dog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) has found him looking for help liberating a white tiger cub from a demented, malevolent Russian circus owner named Sergei (Nick Kroll). #3: action movie.

One of these things is extremely not like the others, of course, but I have to give the Snowball arc some credit: at least it feels like they cared enough to give it nice little things like conflict and stakes. Also, Hart and Haddish are pretty much alone in the whole cast in having apparently stayed awake through the recording sessions, so that's an added benefit.

Meanwhile, the Max and Gidget plotlines just sort of happen. Even that might be overstating Gidget's function in the movie: her material runs out of go, and you can almost literally feel the momentary panic of a screenwriter who has just discovered that of his three concurrent stories, one cannot possibly take more than one day and the other two cannot possibly take less than three, and the solution is just to cut the shorter thread off when it's done its duty. Though it's dredged back up in time for the film to tie the three stories back together that at least tries to pretend there was any shape to any of this the whole time.

That half-assed "good enough" vibe permeates absolutely every bit of SLOP2. The ragged arc of Max's storyline is a good example: it starts out as a metaphor for helicopter parenting, and at some point after it became clear that the target audience of 6-year-olds could not conceivably care, it gets unceremoniously altered to "no wait, it's not Liam he's afraid for, it's himself". The jaw-dropping tonal shift between, on the one hand, "dogs go to a farm" and "dog goes to the downstairs neighbor's apartment", and, on the other hand, "bunny dressed in spandex fights Russian wolves to save a tiger from an evil circus train on the docks of Manhattan" is another. It never feels like there was even an attempt to square any of this; it's just extruded and forgotten.

Hell, even the smallest bits of filmmaking suffer from this. Geography is a particular weak point: spatial relationships between characters and rooms are cheated left and right for the sake of making the plot go forward. In one especially galling moment, there's an exterior shot of a window cracked open about one inch that cuts directly to an interior shot of the character sauntering through the same window, thrown open all the way wide. It's lazy - objectively, there's no other word for it. But "lazy" isn't enough. It is hostile in its laziness, openly angry with the thought that any sort of work might need to go into assembling a story. It clearly just wants to get by on cuteness alone. And yes, the characters are cute I particularly admire the way that Max's face is squished into displaying all kinds of amusingly pathetic expressions. It's got a bit of the fun, rubbery cartoon quality that Illumination can do well, when it's not being obnoxious and cheap (though the film lacks the bright colorful qualities of the first movie, I am sorry to say). But it's also so destitute of anything resembling content, emotion, momentum, character interiority, or non-scatological humor (though I have to say, if you like scatological humor, 2019 isn't likely to provide a more robust collection of potty jokes, certainly in a child-friendly format*). It looks bland, it barely functions as a storytelling object, the character arcs are trite, and if we don't count the live-action/animation hybrid Hop, I think it's almost objectively the worst thing Illumination has released. The worst thing Illumination has released, I say again.

*On the subject of which: if the film is to be trusted, apparently "pissed" was cleared as a family-friendly vulgarity sometime when I wasn't looking.