Packed with Illumination’s signature irreverence and subversive humor, The Secret Life of Pets 2 explores the emotional lives of our pets, the deep bond between them and the families that love them, and answers the question that has long intrigued every pet owner: What are your pets really doing when you’re not at home?
It marks Illumination’s tenth animated feature, following the success of The Secret Life of Pets, which broke box-office records and earned more than $875 million worldwide.
Chris Meledandri, his producing partner Janet Healy, returning screenwriter Brian Lynch and returning director Chris Renaud began to explore ideas for the next chapter in the lives of the characters they had created.
“The first Pets movie clearly struck a chord with audiences around the world, purely because it was about pets,” Renaud says. “We really tried to capture animals as they are, in both attitude and animated performance. I also feel that the question about what your pets do when you’re not home was so simple and compelling; people couldn’t resist watching a movie that attempted to answer that conundrum.”
The question facing them now was how to best evolve and expand the world of Pets in a way that felt fresh, inventive, exciting and authentic.
“When you start to craft a sequel, the goal is to tell a story that brings the audience back together with the characters that they love but then have discovery within that film for new story lines, new character development and new characters,” Meledandri says.
“Audiences, when they come to this film, can’t wait to see these characters that they love again, and they can’t wait to see what these characters are up to when no one’s around. That core premise has such strength, and we embraced that, but we also wanted to create a story that would become a step forward in the lives of these characters and one that would be compelling to all audiences, even those who hadn’t seen the first movie.”
Indelible, relatable and sweetly flawed characters form the foundation of all of Illumination’s storytelling, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 is no exception.
Together, Meledandri and his top creative team zeroed in on exploring the secret emotional lives of our pets, our unconditional love for them and they for us.
“One of the really charming elements of Pets 2 is this relationship that we have with our pets that actually goes two ways,” Meledandri says. “Not only are we taking care of our pets, but our pets are actually taking care of us as well.” Sometimes a little too well. One of the major themes of the film is the idea of helicopter parenting and the impact that has on both the parent and the child being parented.
“Brian Lynch, Chris Meledandri and I were kicking around ideas surrounding the dynamic between pets and kids,” Renaud says.
“We realized a great direction to go with the story was seeing the relationship between a kid and their pet blossom and develop into real love. A lot of the story came from our own experiences. I had an Irish setter named Shammy as a kid, and she adopted a gentle and submissive personality around me and other kids.”
The filmmakers also sought to make Pets 2 even funnier than the first film.
Three of the returning characters—Terrier Max, Pomeranian Gidget and rabbit Snowball —all find themselves in situations that push them far outside their comfort zones, providing the filmmakers, and the cast, with ample opportunities to find the humor in Max’s neuroses, Gidget’s undercover cat operation, and Snowball’s delusions of superhero grandeur. Just as important, beneath the laughs lies a strong beating heart that will resonate with all audiences. Max, as the emotional center of the film, struggles to find the courage to let Liam, a little boy whom he had come to love beyond all expectation, grow up.
Since the first film, where Max had to learn to share his owner, Katie with a new dog, Duke, Max and Duke have become brothers, but now Katie has gotten married and has a toddler son, Liam.
“Max goes from initially being bewildered by this infant to being somewhat terrorized by him, to then realizing that this child adores him,” Meledandri says. “There’s this unconditional love that Max returns to Liam, and Max effectively becomes the protector, the parent, the overlord of this child, and with that, he takes on the anxiety of any new parent. Max has gone from disinterest to not wanting Liam to be out of his sight.
“The movie becomes the exploration being an overprotective helicopter parent who is so fearful that if their child trips and falls and skins his knee or is one step out of reach, that havoc is going to come raining down. “
“The journey of this movie is really the journey of Max realizing that, as much as he loves Liam, he’s actually gotta let him go, to develop his own independence, and really learn how to survive. It’s a journey that parents, or anyone who’s had a parent, can identify with—having somebody that you love and care for, but realizing that your role is not to protect them from everything in the world, but to prepare them to live on their own in the world.”
That idea resonated with Meledandri, Renaud and Lynch, who are all fathers themselves.
“The theme that we tried to convey in this film was the idea of letting go,” Renaud says. “There’s nothing clearer than sending your child to school and realizing you don’t have control anymore. You have to accept that it’s a dangerous world, but you have to let go and let them live on their own. It’s not about protection as much as it’s about teaching them to stand on their own two feet.”
It’s those personal connections that provide Pets 2, and Illumination films in general, with emotional authenticity. “So often making these movies become a sort of therapeutic act for me,” Meledandri says. “I’m working through my own personal problems in small ways, and I think it’s true for Chris and Brian, too. We all kind of bring our own individual perspectives to it. I relate to Max because I struggled with the balance between being an incredibly diligent caretaker of my kids and also giving them enough room to begin to develop their own independence. What generally prevents us from letting our kids go and allowing them to go out into the world, even if the world is the playground, is generalized fear. So, the journey for Max in the movie is a journey of conquering his own fear, which then gives him a deep inner confidence to let go a bit. It’s actually quite touching when that happens.”
With the emotional heart of the story established, the filmmakers faced a daunting structural puzzle of launching three separate story lines—Max’s, Gidget’s and Snowball’s—and then devising a way to reunite them. “The primary challenge was weaving three different story lines together,” Renaud says. “The first film revolved around Max’s story as he and Duke tried to make their way home, but in this film, we used both the narrative and the music to stitch the three different stories together.”
The filmmakers found inspiration for this structure in a surprising place: their first movie. “When we were making the first movie we discovered something almost by accident,” Meledandri says.
“We realized that every few scenes we would introduce a new character or characters. That’s a very unusual structure. Most films introduce you to your main characters in the first five or six scenes and then you watch their lives play out. What we found, though, was that our structure gave the film this constant sense of discovery. So, when it came time to make this second film we wanted to find a way to mirror some of that energy. We came up with this idea of three story lines that are all happening simultaneously and that ultimately collide. When they do finally collide it has great relevance, but prior to that we’re cutting between these parallel story lines. This will sound like a ridiculous analogy, but it reminds me of the structure of Game of Thrones, where, with every episode, you’re cutting back and forth between these parallel stories. That’s not your typical structural approach for a film, but I find it to be really engaging.”
Executing it seamlessly, however, proved daunting. “The most challenging sequence of the film was tying all three story lines back together,” Renaud says. “Through the course of the film, Max, Gidget and Snowball are operating somewhat independently within their own narratives. But to make the movie work and create a satisfying ending, we had to figure out how to connect these disparate elements and provide a catalyst into the third-act action. Sometimes you can get trapped into worrying about logic, but you usually find that you need less than you think. It’s the emotion and character stakes that carry the day.”
The moment they cracked the code of how to reunite the three story lines was pivotal not just for the film, but for everyone involved in making it happen.
“It was a moment that underscored an aspect of what we do at Illumination that is largely invisible to the audiences who love our films,” Meledandri says. “We spend three or four years or more in a creative process that constantly calls upon us to bring our best ideas forward and to never give up trying to make a scene better or to strengthen a character or to find a comedic aspect that we hadn’t discovered before. We were working on that section for many, many months, and there was one day when we ran through it where it just hit me that the collective efforts of the group had come together and had achieved what had been so difficult, so elusive to us. We had all given a lot of ourselves, and we had come to this moment. If you’re in that process for years, as we are, to be able to thrive and continue to make things that will delight audiences, you have to take the rewards while you’re in the process, to recognize when you’re achieving. That’s a moment that will stay with me.”
That commitment to excellence and to the emotional truth of the characters is what inspired the original cast members to return for the sequel. “You see real progression of the characters in this movie,” Hart says.
“You see the characters grow as their families grow. And the central idea in the first film, which was, ‘What are your pets doing when you leave the house?’ is expanded, too. This time we see not just what they do, but how far they will go to protect their homes, their families, their owners, their friends. I love that this world we’ve created is evolving. I think fans are going to get much more than they expected and realize that this is a world that can continue. These are characters that you can invest in and grow with.”