More often than not, popular wisdom suggests, a movie sequel will fall short of the original. Accordingly, The Secret Life of Pets 2 opened last week to mediocre reviews and opening night box office returns half of its 2016 predecessor’s. Still, many will be dragged to theaters by their kids (or, as in my husband’s case, a spouse) who are enamored with the adorable animated characters. Or maybe you’re looking for a film the whole family can enjoy together. If you find yourself in the audience, your time is not spent in vain. You might miss some of the suspense and emotion of the original movie, but you’ll also find deeper lessons conveyed in this installment.
*Spoiler Alert* Some plot details of Pets 2 follow.
And the overarching lesson is deeper than the pat “be brave” many film critics are assigning to this film. In fact, the moral of the story is so pervasive throughout its 86 minutes, even nuanced (I mean, for an animated children’s film), that I have to wonder if the writers have recently read The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. (Or perhaps, again like in my husband’s case, their wives have and they just feel like they’ve read it after hearing so much about it.) With Snowball (Kevin Hart) leaving his life of crime behind and Max (now Patton Oswalt) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) getting along swimmingly, Pets 2 loses some of the edge that made the original both hilarious and heartrending. But what the sequel has that the original did not are lessons that many adults need. Kids will get in their laughs, too, but adults will find the story illustrates several messages of the best-selling Coddling.
In the new film, Max competes for the attention of owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), not with now-friend Duke but Katie’s young son, Liam. Perpetually pestered, Max survives the early days with a rough young toddler to ultimately love Liam. He refers to Liam as “my kid” and considers his mission to protect Liam. Max goes so far as to radio neighboring pets when “the package has left the building” to check on Liam’s whereabouts and wellbeing. Max becomes especially worried when he learns that, one day, Liam will have to go to school. Sticking true to its genre, the film’s stars are the secretly prolific pets who serve as the center of the action and, ultimately, where we adults find our admonition. Max’s storyline is to Coddling as the Tuttle Twins are to legendary liberty-loving texts, revealing at least four lessons.
- Children are antifragile. The unspoken premise of the film directly refutes one of the three “Great Untruths” Lukianoff and Haidt set out to disprove. Rather than “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” Pets 2 implies that children grow by facing new things and overcoming difficulties. That is, not only are they not fragile, they are what Lukianoff and Haidt label antifragile. They require challenges to grow and develop.
- Safetyism runs counter to antifragility. A new character in this movie, Rooster (basically Harrison Ford but animated), asks why Liam is in a “cage” (play pen) while outside at a relative’s farm. Max offers a well-worn safetyist response-for Liam’s own good and protection. Rooster scoffs but also digs deeper, with Max and Rooster talking out the possible dangers of Liam finding a tree, climbing it, falling, etc. The writers develop Rooster’s logic to show that anxiety-torn Max’s approach can actually stunt Liam’s development. (This is especially notable in contrast to Katie’s easy-going parenting. She allows toddler Liam to run off-leash on New York City sidewalks and her two city dogs to sleep outside at the farm.)
- Ultimately, adults are responsible for the good or bad ideas, well-intentioned as they may be, that set up their kids for success or failure. This is The *Secret* Life of Pets, after all, so we’re meant to relate to the animals, not Katie. The writers seem to be telling us that the lessons Max needs are for us, too. This is a similar tack to Lukianoff and Haidt’s in that it does not lay blame on Millennials, Gen Z, or “kids these days;” rather Pets 2 shows that the protections of well-meaning adults are often misguided.
- Fake it ‘til you make it. OK, I don’t recall this in Coddling explicitly, but it seems a practical rule for adults (or caretaker dogs) who are having a hard time breaking themselves of worry and safetyism. Rooster tells Max the first step to being brave is to act like he is. For human adults, reading Coddling and/or considering the materials its authors provide for getting kids out in the world on their own can serve as solid, concrete steps that make one look (and eventually feel) more comfortable with parenting freer kids.
Bonus Lessons: Gidget as Active Learner
In The Secret Life of Pets 3 (from my blog to Illumination’s ears) maybe the writers will send Liam off to college where he won’t shout down speakers, demand safe spaces or trigger warnings, and will leave his loving parents (and pets) at home, all topics Lukianoff and Haidt address in Coddling. For now though, I think the story of fluffy little Gidget offers some useful insights to high school and college students about tackling tough tasks, consistent with antifragility.
- Accepting responsibility means following through. Gidget (Jenny Slate) agrees to watch Max’s favorite squeak toy, Busy Bee, while he’s with the family at the farm. When she loses it to an apartment full of terrifying cats (and a checked-out cat lady), she doesn’t give up. She is determined to save the toy, no matter what it takes.
- When you don’t know exactly what to do, ask for help. Gidget is clueless in the way of cats, so she enlists the expertise of cat Chloe (Lake Bell), but never asks Chloe to save the toy. She wants to learn from Chloe what she needs to know to do it herself.
- Active learning is critical for adaptability and real personal growth. When Gidget finally enters the cat-filled apartment, she has developed her own plan building off lessons from Chloe. She doesn’t go it alone, enlisting the help of guinea pig Norman (Chris Renaud), but still, she takes charge herself. She runs into difficulties, but easily switches to Plan B. She leaves the apartment, Queen of the cats.
It is notable how little Gidget knew to start, but that committing to follow-through, knowing who to ask, taking an active role in learning, and making it happen through her own wits and actions facilitated Gidget’s ultimate success.
Pets 2 is not as emotionally compelling or suspenseful as the original, which can’t be good business for the film franchise. But even this aligns with the spirit of Coddling which aims to moderate the role of “feelings” where thinking is important. (Another of the Great Untruths is “Always trust your feelings.”) The screenwriters have willingly, it seems, gone out on a limb (pun intended, if you’ve seen the movie) to make a few points to parents, and adults in general, about what is good for kids. The values throughout the film are overwhelmingly consistent with classical virtues, something we shouldn’t take for granted even in animated films these days. Pets 2 and Coddling both communicate that, life’s challenges don’t (often) kill you and, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.