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Unconditional Love and Helicopter Parenting
Finding the Heart of Pets 2

Almost immediately following the success of The Secret Life of Pets, which broke box-office records and earned more than $875 million worldwide, Illumination CEO 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 (Patton Oswalt), Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart)-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 (Ellie Kemper) with a new dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), 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."

It takes a lot of people to make that happen. The number of artists, working in multiple time zones, required to create an animated film of this quality is impressive, to say the least. "We had up to 200 or so people in both France and the U.S. working on the film," Renaud says. "Besides the Illumination team in Santa Monica, the writer and storyboard artists were also based in the U.S., but everyone else on the production, from layout up through animation and final rendering, was located in Paris."

For Janet Healy, who oversees Paris operations, the years of work devoted to the Pets franchise are well worth it, both for its creative challenges and for the joy it brings audiences. "This franchise is unique and special because it connects us to our beloved pets in intriguing and humorous ways," Healy says. "People in every part of the world adore their pets and wonder what really goes on in their pets' minds. When they see The Secret Life of Pets films, they get a magical, fun insight. The Secret Life of Pets franchise is far more thrilling and busy than we ever could have imagined."

Above all, it's the relatability of the characters that brings audiences back again and again. "All of the characters in The Secret Life of Pets 2 are in some way familiar," Healy says. "They represent the personalities and behaviors that we see in our beloved pets every day. Just like we humans, these pets have close friendships, deep loyalties, big problems to solve and heroic deeds to accomplish. The pets in our franchise are a familiar and dear part of our families and now they are a wonderful part of our film experience."

Pets 2 is also a groundbreaking technical achievement and sets a new bar for Illumination. "There are some scenes in this movie that I think are some of the finest action sequences that have ever existed in an Illumination film," Meledandri says. "There's a sequence that takes place at this evil circus. I've seen the scene probably 200 times, and every time I marvel at the cinematic qualities of it, and how Chris staged it, and the tension that's created. I love the lighting; I love the animation performances in it; I love the qualities of the water on the ground and the reflections in the water. It's a scene where the artistry of the team in France and Chris' directing come together in a way that makes me so proud to be one of the producers of the film."

Renaud is thrilled and honored by the work that he and Illumination have achieved together. "It has been a collaboration and partnership that has been the pinnacle of my career to date," Renaud says. "Working with Chris Meledandri remains a true pleasure, and the entire team at Illumination is second to none. I feel lucky to have been able to work with this amazing team to create characters and stories that are so loved by audiences. I think the sequel may have a stronger, more nuanced and layered story than Pets 1. In the first film, we found that we had to tell a very simple story just to have the space to introduce our huge cast of pets. In this one, we were able to forgo the introductions and get right into storytelling."

Renaud is eager for audiences to see it. "I hope the audience will leave the theater glad that they had another chance to spend some time with these characters," Renaud says. "I know we had a great time working with these guys again and I'm hoping that joy and fun come across in this movie."

For Meledandri, the film is a testament to the powerful connection between us and the animals that share our lives. "At its core, we all go through life seeking unconditional love, and it can be really hard to find that from another human being," Meledandri says. "But it's so easy for our pets to give it to us. It's so deeply comforting, that bond that we make with our pets."

As with the first film in 2016, The Secret Life of Pets 2 features some of the most extraordinary comedic talent working today. The actors are encouraged to ad lib during their recording sessions, and to contribute their own ideas, but it falls to Renaud and Lynch to harness and shape all of that creative energy and make sure that it enhances the film. "Animation is a great medium for improvisation," Meledandri says. "Generally, we look to get a few run-throughs of the script as written first. We go scene by scene, we record only one actor at a time, and once we've got a version of a scene down as scripted, we give the actor the opportunity to invent anything that she or he feels comfortable contributing."

Renaud explains how the improvisation process works. "In addition to the comedic actors coming up with ad-libs, Brian, our writer, always throws out great ideas to me while we are in the session," Renaud says. "It's sort of my job to navigate all of this input in an attempt to get the best material, thinking on my feet about what works and what doesn't. Sometimes, what plays funny in the recording booth doesn't land in the movie. Either it's too long or we don't have the actor's facial expressions and body language to support the joke. That said, there are definitely a few ad-libs that became our favorite lines in the movie!"

The results, Meledandri says, speak for themselves. "Chris Renaud has evolved over the past 10 years as a really great director of actors," Meledandri says. "It's always a nice surprise for me when I'm working with Chris for him to show me new material that has the voice recording in it. I get the benefit of hearing it for the first time, and he gets the benefit of getting my reaction, hearing it for the first time."

Pets 2 finds all our favorite characters, and a few new ones, facing challenges that will test their courage, determination and their ability to trust themselves, no matter what life may throw at them.

Patton Oswalt
Terrier Max, voiced by Patton Oswalt, has a hard time with change. In the first film, the arrival of mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet) in the apartment where Max lived with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) forced Max to learn how to adapt and share his space. In Pets 2, Katie has gotten married to Chuck (PETE HOLMES) and they now have a toddler son, Liam.

Max adores Liam more than he could have imagined, but his desire to protect Liam from all of life's potential dangers has turned him into a nervous wreck. He has even developed a tic where he scratches himself constantly. Oswalt proved to be the perfect actor to express that amount of canine devotion and anxiety. "Patton brought warmth, humor and, most important, vulnerability to the role of Max," Chris Renaud says. "Max is a very nervous character, especially with his owner's new little boy, Liam. He's scared about the world and about what's going to happen to Liam, and Patton brought a sense of vulnerability to the character that made you feel for him."

Oswalt viewed it as a natural evolution of Max's character. "Max has definitely opened up to the possibility that some humans, other than his owner Katie, could be really cool, and that helps him grow," Oswalt says. "But it has also made Max very protective of Katie's new son, Liam. Liam is Max's little buddy and, to Max, an example of the best that humanity has to offer, so Max feels he has to protect him."

After a trip to the veterinarian to be treated for his anxiety, Max is fitted with a cone that prevents him from scratching himself. The cone itself, of course, then becomes its own source of anxiety. "Max takes things a thousand-percent more seriously than they need to be taken, which is really fun to play comedically," Oswalt says.

Chris Meledandri sees that as one of Oswalt's great strengths as an actor. "Patton has a voice that is immediately likable and sympathetic," Meledandri says. "He's also so comfortable with being vulnerable, and when you're creating a character like Max, vulnerability is really tied to the appeal of the character. Patton also finds the comedy in the vulnerability, and it's much easier to locate comedy when you're dealing with characters who are flawed and who are comfortable with their flaws. They may be struggling, but they're not pretending not to be flawed."

Soon after Max is fitted with the cone, Katie and Chuck take Liam, Max and Duke to a family farm, where Max and Duke experience the countryside for the first time. For most dogs, including Duke, a farm is a place of beauty, discovery and exciting new smells and animals. For Max, it's just a new set of things to fret about, including an aggressive turkey.

"We were looking to create a bit of a storybook quality for the farm," Renaud says. "Initially, we played with the idea that the farm actually looked dangerous, but the stronger narrative idea was that it was Max's perception of the farm that looked scary. Any time you go to a new place, there is an element of fear and discomfort because you are unfamiliar with your environment. So, in Max's POV the turkey he encounters roars like a T. rex. But, when we cut wide, you only hear the turkey's ridiculous gobbling as he chases Max across the barnyard. However, in fairness to Max, a turkey chasing you can be scary! This moment was based on some true-life experiences."

No matter where he is, Max sees potential danger. Here's how Oswalt describes a typical day for Max: "Wake up. Breakfast. Worry, worry, worry, worry. Dinner. Sleep."

That's about to change, though. On their first night on the farm, Max and Duke are saved from a fox by a no-nonsense farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford). Over the rest of Max's visit, Rooster schools Max in the ways of the alpha dog and guides him in learning to push past his own fears. "Meeting Rooster definitely helps Max grow, but he fights it every step of the way," Oswalt says. "That relationship teaches Max that he's able to let go a little more and relax a little more."

Over the course of recording the role, Oswalt found himself becoming protective of Max. Of all the Pets 2 characters he would want as his real-life pet, Oswalt says, he would choose Max. "Max is really sweet, and it would be good to get a dog and show him that life can be mellow," Oswalt says. "I worry about that little guy, so I'd want to take Max and then try to chill him out."

Max, for the record, does finally chill out in the film and learns to let Liam take his first steps into the wider world. The scene where Max says goodbye to Liam on his first day of preschool is the film's most poignant moment, and the one that both Renaud and Meledandri cite as their favorite. "That is the scene that I always had in my head as the emotional end point of the film," Renaud says. "We tried to capture that universal experience when we must overcome our fear of the unknown and let our children go off to begin their own lives."

It's the moment where the audience sees the proof of Max's growth. "It's the scene where all the themes of the film come together," Meledandri says. "It's a moment that I find so touching, and it's so affecting because both Brian Lynch and Chris Renaud were so relating to that scene. They're both younger fathers than I am, so that memory is fresh in their minds. There's an irresistible invitation to feel what they're feeling."

Kevin Hart
At the end of the first Pets, Snowball, played by Kevin Hart, walked away from his life as an underground warrior for abandoned pets when he was adopted by a little girl named Molly. "Snowball was the adversary in the first film, this wild bunny who ruled the underworld of New York," Chris Meledandri says. "But at the end of the first film, we saw that the love of his new owner melted that oppositional side right out of him. All he really wanted was to be loved. So, in this film he's become the most pampered pet with the most adoring owner, and he's gone soft. He just doesn't realize he's gone soft."

Now happily domesticated, Snowball spends his days in adorable outfits that Molly picks for him. Snowball's favorite costume is a pair of superhero pajamas. He dubs himself Captain Snowball and begins to believe his own hype, even though he's never actually rescued anyone or done anything particularly heroic.

"Being a superhero means everything to Snowball," Hart says. "His biggest challenge is realizing that his belief that he's a superhero doesn't match up with the physical reality of being one. But he's got an ability to make even his mistakes look intentional. When he gets 'oohs' and 'aahs' for accidentally achieving something, he believes he did it on purpose. It just reinforces his idea of himself."

Snowball's idea of himself is challenged, however, when a fearless Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), having heard of Captain Snowball, shows up in his apartment to recruit him for a dangerous mission: to rescue a white tiger from a cruel circus owner named Sergei (Nick Kroll). When they're faced with the prospect of real danger, Snowball discovers that Daisy is one brave little dog, and he's going to have to up his game.

"Snowball doesn't have a big group around him to make him feel like the head honcho, like he did in the first film," Hart says. "He's forced to realize that sometimes other people have better ideas than he does, and he has to follow rather than lead. That's humbling, and it's part of his growth in this movie. It's also really funny. To see someone like Snowball realize that the world outside doesn't match the one inside his head, that everything isn't the way he wants it to be, that's funny to me."

Snowball had been the breakout star of the first Pets, so the filmmakers were eager to provide Snowball with new challenges and Hart with new comedic opportunities. "It was clear that audiences loved Snowball after the first film, so it was easy to put him front and center again," Chris Renaud says. "Kevin had a specific spin on his character and added certain things to make Snowball his own. Snowball is bigger than life. Once he puts on the superhero costume, he's really bigger than life. There's a naïve, childlike sensibility about Snowball that audiences fell in love with."

For the animators, Snowball is a gift that keeps on giving. "The animators just go wild with Kevin's voice track," Meledandri says. "You've got that adorable little bunny with this incredibly energetic comedic voice coming out of its mouth."

For Hart, the decision to return to Snowball again wasn't a hard one, in part because the process of creating him is so fulfilling. "There's always a high level of discovery, playing Snowball, and I credit the creators, the director and the writers for letting me bring as much to the character as I possibly can," Hart says. "To date, when I get in that recording booth, there has never been a hand in front of me telling me to stop or to not push or to be more creative. When you have people around you like that, you're constantly evolving."

Over the two films, Hart has developed a pretty solid sense of Snowball's inner life. "I love Snowball's ability to backpedal and ramble his way out of things," Hart says. "If he says, 'Look, everybody, we're going to go out at noon,' and then someone says, 'Why? That's stupid,' he immediately goes, 'Well, I knew 11:30 was better anyway!'" He laughs. "What's amazing is that he does stuff like that in such a prideful manner, and with such bravado, that no one ever thinks he's a coward or that he isn't capable. No matter what, he always makes sure he seems real and tough, even when he isn't."

As much as he loves playing Snowball, Hart wouldn't recommend relying on him in a crisis. "If I were in danger, I would not look to Captain Snowball to be my savior," Hart says, laughing. "I would much rather have somebody capable of dealing with whatever the circumstances are. There is something contagious about Snowball's spirit, his belief in himself, though, that makes you want to rally behind him, whether his accomplishments are real or not."

Hart's co-stars are a little more confident in Snowball's abilities. Sort of. "Captain Snowball is pretty great," says Bobby Moynihan, who voices always-hungry pug Mel. "In theory I would hire Captain Snowball to save me," he adds, "but it would depend on how much money we're talking. I'm pretty light on cash right now."

Harrison Ford
One of the new characters in the film is a seasoned farm dog named Rooster who ends up helping Max confront his own fears and find his inner courage. "Rooster is a character that is perfectly suited to Harrison Ford," Chris Meledandri says. "He's a ranch dog and he runs this ranch with a pretty stern sense of command. Rooster is exactly who Max needs, because he is the opposite of Max: He is tough, he is wise and he is not suffering fools. When Max steps onto his farm, he's going to leave having grown up and having overcome his fear, whether he likes it or not. This journey that Max goes on allows him to overcome the fear that is holding him back, and he does it driven by Rooster, who is teaching this city dog how to really stand up and be a man."

Everything about the design of Rooster, and Ford's performance, speaks to the strength of his character. "A word that we often used to describe the animation for Rooster was 'taciturn,'" Chris Renaud says. "He's very minimal and not overly expressive or flamboyant. We used small mouth shapes and flat eyes, aside from the moments when the character was angry."

To bring the character to life, the filmmakers needed to find an actor whose voice immediately communicated confidence, intelligence and quiet heroism. One name quickly rose to the top of that list-Harrison Ford-but the iconic star had never performed in an animated film before. There was just one reason for that, Ford says: "I had never been asked before."

A fan of the first Pets movie and a man with three dogs of his own, Ford was intrigued, but he had a few questions. "My first instinct was to ask, 'Well, do you want me to do a voice? A dog voice?'" Ford says. "And they said no, just my regular voice. I figured out pretty quickly that Rooster was kind of a caricature idea of me; it was celebrated as typecasting. Usually that's something you want to stay away from, but in this case it was encouraged."

Renaud was thrilled. "Once we landed on the concept of Rooster and the farm, the movie just fell into place," Renaud says. "Working with Harrison on this film was a dream come true for me. He went above and beyond my expectations in the role of Rooster and lent a real weight and gravity to the character. You can't help but be riveted by his voice when you hear it onscreen."

For Ford, the recording process was more enjoyable than he had imagined. "I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was," he says. "It was really a pleasure to do it. They made it great fun for me. You'd go in, do a scene or a bunch of scenes, and then you come back. You start to see pictures of the character in action. I don't think I ever spent more than 45 minutes or an hour in the recording studio at any one time. They work really hard to get it where they want it, and you…don't." He laughs. "It's too easy. And fun. Really fun."

Playing Rooster did not, however, change Ford's perspective on his own dogs. "No, my dogs are very different than Rooster, as far as I know," he says, and chuckles. "They don't have the same kind of secret life. I have dogs and I really enjoy their company. Currently we're down to three, but we've had as many as four dogs at a time. Their personalities, their capacity to generate an emotional connection to us, make them just a pleasure to be around."

Seeing the film for the first time was a pleasure, too. "The movie's fantastic," Ford says. "The Illumination style of animation amazes me. The detail, what they put into the frame, absolutely amazes." Rooster is certain to become an immediate fan favorite for audiences, so would Ford consider doing a Pets 3 if the opportunity arose? "Pets 3? Oh yeah, sure," Ford says. "Why not? I'd love it." Duke Eric Stonestreet Since we last saw them, brothers Duke, played by Eric Stonestreet, and Max (Patton Oswalt) have been grappling with the arrival of toddler Liam. "Duke and Max, we consider Liam our kid," Stonestreet says. "We want him to look up to us, and we want to set good examples for him. It's such a sweet relationship, and one that I think a lot of parents are going to see themselves in. So many of us are so worried about life and dangers for our kids, but kids have got to find a little danger to learn lessons in life."

Duke and Max look out for Liam, but Duke is handling it better than Max is. "Duke's more comfortable now," Stonestreet says. "In the first movie he didn't really know where his place in the world was, and now he clearly has a home. He and Max are best friends, and now with Liam in their world, Duke's a more confident dog because he knows he's got a place to live and to be."

When Katie (Ellie Kemper) and her husband (Pete Holmes) take Liam and the dogs to a family farm for a little getaway, Max sees danger everywhere while Duke embraces the joys of country life. "The farm means so much to Duke," Stonestreet says. "First of all, it's got so many smells! I can relate to that. When I go home, to the most rural part of Kansas City, I love all the smells of fresh-cut alfalfa, even the smell of cow manure. As a kid you think you don't like that smell, but when you grow up and leave it, you can't wait to get back and just smell the cow poop! It smells like home. So first and foremost, Duke is most excited about getting out to the country, smelling all those smells, and then settling down, changing tempo, changing pace. To go from the big city to the farm, it's nice. You're not in a hurry anymore. Duke appreciates that."

As Max freaks out and Duke revels in the new adventure, they meet gruff farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford), who teaches them the ways of the farm, with some pretty solid life advice thrown in for good measure. "Duke thinks Rooster is the coolest dog he's ever met," Stonestreet says. "How could you not? Rooster lives and sleeps in an old 1930s truck. He wears a cool neckerchief like a real cowboy. I mean, you've got to be a strong personality and have a lot of confidence to pull off a neckerchief, right? Just his name, Rooster, signifies a lot. I'm scared to death of roosters personally. Roosters tormented me as a kid. Anyway, Duke thinks Rooster is awesome."

For Stonestreet, Duke represents what is best and pure about dogs, and our relationships with them. "My favorite quality of Duke's is his earnestness and his immediate trust in people," Stonestreet says. "That's what's so great about dogs in general. Dogs are born wanting to trust you and love you. It's innate, and its only when something tragic happens in their lives that that trust is lost. So, I think of Duke as a bit of an innocent, and I love that about him."

Duke also can surprise you every now and then. "Duke runs that perfect fine line between smart and not smart," he says. "You can think of him as kind of a doof, but then occasionally he says some pretty smart things."

Coming back to this character, and this franchise, for a second film was an easy decision for Stonestreet. "I have a blast doing the recording sessions," he says. "I love it. Well before Modern Family, I took animation and voice-over classes. I always aspired to get into this world, so it's a dream come true to be able to do it. It's freeing. It's expressive. It's fun. I couldn't think of a better job."

Plus, it has some unexpected perks. "Where we do the recording sessions is only about four minutes from my house, which you can't overestimate the value of in Los Angeles," Stonestreet says. "You're so much happier when you get to work! You just roll in, do some vocal warm-ups, say 'Hi' to everybody, look at pictures from the film and character designs. One of my favorite memories from the first movie was the day they put the film art out on music stands for me to look at for the first time. It was so inspiring, and it really helped me get into the feel of it."

Tiffany Haddish
Snowball (Kevin Hart) may have finally met his match. As Snowball dresses up in his Captain Snowball pajamas and brags about his (mostly made-up) heroic exploits, the stories of a bunny superhero start to trickle out into the wider world. So, when a brave Shih Tzu named Daisy, played by Tiffany Haddish, meets Hu, a white tiger held captive by a cruel circus owner, she decides to rescue him. Her first stop is to seek out Captain Snowball to try and draft him into helping her with her mission. "Daisy definitely has some attitude," Chris Renaud says. "She's the perfect companion for Snowball because she's certainly tough and capable in her own right, but she also exudes tenderness and care."

Haddish was smitten with Daisy from the moment she saw a picture of her. "The first time I saw the character art of Daisy, I thought she was so cute,'" Haddish says. "Chris Renaud and the Illumination team described Daisy to me as a spunky, know-how and courageous Shih Tzu. I thought, 'So, she's me!'"

There's a snag in Daisy's plan, however. Snowball is not prepared to face any real danger, and as they arrive at the circus at night to break Hu out of his cage, it's Daisy who does most of the work. "Daisy realizes that Captain Snowball isn't quite as heroic as he pretends to be right off the bat," Haddish says.

Rather than shame him, however, Daisy gradually guides Snowball into finding his own inner hero. The role required complexity and nuance, and Haddish gave the filmmakers everything they'd hoped for, and more. "Tiffany delivered both the attitude and gentleness that make Daisy a truly lovable character," Renaud says.

And Haddish was wowed by the filmmakers' creativity and commitment. "Everyone at Illumination was so much fun and easy to work with," Haddish says. "I would definitely be up for Pets 3. In the next film, I'd like to see Daisy in her own element."

Jenny Slate
When Max (Patton Oswalt) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) head to the farm, Max asks a critical favor of Pomeranian Gidget, played by Jenny Slate: to take care of his favorite toy, Busy Bee. She immediately says yes, of course. Her crush on Max has not waned since the first film. "Gidget sees Max as a fantasy boyfriend," Slate says. "When she thinks about him, she sees a fantasy of herself as well. But when it comes down to it, the Gidget that comes to his aid again and again is better than any fantasy."

Unfortunately, Max still seems oblivious to Gidget's affection for him, even as he relies on her with increasing frequency. "Gidget is someone Max looks to for help in taking care of Liam," Oswalt says. "I don't think Max is too cognizant of her little crush on him, which is sad because she's a really cool dog. He should know better."

Stalwart and vigilant, Gidget takes pains to watch over Busy Bee, so she's horrified when the toy accidentally bounces down the fire escape and into the apartment of an old woman and her dozens and dozens of cats. To rescue the toy, she hatches a plan to disguise herself as a cat, sneak into the apartment and retrieve it. She turns to her feline pal Chloe (Lake Bell) to mentor her in how to behave like a cat, and Gidget soon proves that she's willing to do just about anything to perfect her impersonation. "Gidget believes in herself and in what she wants," Slate says. "Even while wearing a disguise, Gidget becomes more of herself and believes in her brightness and her ability to love. She elevates herself by focusing on herself."

She's not particularly believable as a cat - she lacks the aloofness required - but it fools the cats themselves, at least for a little while. "If Gidget became a cat in real life, she would be one of those cats that everyone says, 'My cat is exactly like a dog,'" Slate says. "Or she would just skip the domesticated-cat thing and show up as a lion."

As the film progresses, Gidget's chutzpah and daring end up saving far more than Busy Bee. For Slate, the chance to play another layer of Gidget was a joy. "It was nothing but fun to play Gidget again," she says. "It was very exciting to play a little hero and make sure that I found ways for her to be the boss in her own unique way. It's precious to have been able to show the world that inner strength in her." In many ways, stepping back into Gidget's paws felt like coming home. "Similar to Gidget, I'm a relentless optimist," Slate says. "Living on the sunny side of the street is the smartest move in my opinion, so playing this character felt like my comfort zone."

Lake Bell
No other character, it's fair to say, is less interested in the worries and cares of her fellow pets than cat Chloe is. "Chloe's very self-centered," says Lake Bell, who plays her. "But I do not judge her for her independence and her ways. She's a feminist."

In Pets 2, Chloe has discovered the illicit joys of catnip and spends a good chunk of the film semi-stoned, entertaining herself for hours on end. "Catnip for Chloe is very decadent," Bell says. "I don't think she even realizes how much she loves it, but she wants more. Always. She feigns like it's not a big deal, but when she's on catnip, she loses control of herself. Maybe that's good for someone like Chloe who can be kind of tight-to-the-vest.

"Chloe is lackadaisical, aka lazy, but that's not a bad thing necessarily," Bell continues. "She's robust and voluptuous, and she has a lot of love to give with her furry softness. All of that requires a lot of meals, so she needs to continually be looking and hunting for a very low-energy way. That's kind of her daily process. Well, that, and figuring out how to put hair balls on her owners."

For all those reasons, Chloe proves to be a great comic foil for her much perkier pals. "If you've ever met a cat, it's probably like Chloe," Renaud says with a laugh. "Unless she's had too much catnip, Chloe has the most flat and sarcastic personality of the bunch."

When Pomeranian Gidget first asks Chloe to help her become a cat to rescue Max's Busy Bee, Chloe predicts the mission will be doomed before it even starts. Gidget can't possibly master the complex and nuanced art of cathood, but as cat lessons begin, Chloe eventually gets into the spirit.

"Chloe has become more gracious in her love in this film," Bell says. "She's allowing herself to open up to her animal pals. Max, Duke, Gidget, Daisy...those are her homies, her teammates. She might not admit it right away, but she does have a great respect, and a deep love, for them. She's just not going to give it away for free."

Through playing Chloe, Bell has forged a deeper connection with the blase feline.

"I don't have cats myself, but I've definitely come to know Chloe, and I've become very close to her," Bell says. "We have a lot in common, in that we are both very independent, so I think we would coexist well. She does her thing. I do my thing. No asking questions."

In fact, Chloe has become almost like a member of the family. "My kids love Chloe," Bell says. "Every day when I go to work, my daughter says, 'You're going to have to put on your Chloe outfit.' It's hard to explain to her that my voice is inside the drawing. She refuses to believe that and really envisions me putting on the Chloe outfit, getting to work and then becoming Chloe. I'll let her live with that because I like that idea, too."

Making Pets 2 also reminded Bell of why she loves making these movies so much. "Recording this movie is really fun because there's always, at some point, a moment for 'efforts,' which basically means making different grunting sounds," Bell says. "That's always my favorite part because you have to create physical comedy with just your mouth. Sometimes I have an entire session of just 'efforts,' and that is fun. For hours!"

Dana Carvey
Cranky, curmudgeonly basset hound Pops, played by Dana Carvey, definitely has his paws full in Pets 2. After his owner takes in a puppy, to Pops' great irritation, he ends up running a puppy day boot camp of the apartment and turns it into a "disobedience school." "Pops reveals a lot more of himself in this film," Carvey says. "In the first film he was just barking and yelling a lot. This time he has a little puppy school and he's in charge. He has created this diabolical plot to make these puppies do evil things by wreaking havoc on their human owners, but Pops reveals his heart of gold. He's very softhearted about these puppies."

What starts as an act of canine subversion quickly becomes a higher calling for Pops. "Pops takes the school incredibly seriously," Carvey says. "He takes everything seriously. He has a very large sense of himself, and he's very frustrated with people who cannot really bow down to his brilliance. He loves to order people around."

Carvey has come to love the angry old guy. "My favorite thing about Pops is that he's incredibly honest," Carvey says. "So, when one cute little puppy says, 'My name's Tiny!", he says, 'Nobody cares!' You always know where you stand with Pops. I like that about him. He'll give it to you straight, down both barrels."

As for the disobedience school, Carvey doesn't recommend trying it at home. "It would be like me getting a bunch of four- and five-year-old kids to wreak havoc on their parents," Carvey says. "So, I think we should keep this idea in the animated world. In the practical world I might be brought up on charges."

Nick Kroll
An evil circus ringleader who captures and mistreats Hu, a white tiger, Sergei (Nick Kroll) is an instantly iconic Illumination villain: swathed in shadows, drawn in sharp angles, purring a sinister Russian accent and protected by his own pack of vicious wolves. "That is a brilliant design concept from ERIC GUILLON," Chris Renaud says. "Sergei is a pure bad guy with really no redeeming qualities, so this black, sharp angular look really suited him."

Kroll had worked with Illumination on Sing as the voice of Gunther, the pig, and initially was cast in a different role. "We had actually been working with Nick on another animal character with a Russian accent that didn't end up in the film," Renaud says. "So, when this character came along, we knew who had to play him." For Kroll, mastering the accent was a bit of a leap of faith. "I had never really done a true Russian accent before this role," Kroll says laughing. "It felt like a movie like Pets 2 was the proper place to share this gift with the world."

He relished the chance to explore all of Sergei's many dark sides. "When I first saw the drawing of Sergei, I liked that he felt like a classic animation villain," Kroll says. "I've played a few villains, and they're always so much fun. Sergei is definitely driven by greed. He also serves as an example of how humans can mistreat animals. If you don't recognize that animals have souls, it's much easier to treat them badly, and Sergei is a cautionary tale."

Sergei does have one friend, though: a sneaky monkey named Little Sergei that serves as his loyal spy and aide-de-camp. "The most redeeming quality about Sergei is his relationship with Little Sergei," Kroll says. "We all fell more in love with their relationship as the project evolved."

Having worked with Illumination before, Kroll was thrilled for the opportunity to join another franchise for the studio. "After working with Illumination on Sing, I saw what a smart and thoughtful studio they are," Kroll says. "I really loved the first Pets movie and was genuinely excited to become part of the universe. Illumination makes funny, entertaining films that are also quite emotional, which is why kids and adults alike have responded to their films with such passion."

Bobby Moynihan
Pug Mel, voiced by Bobby Moynihan, is back and hungrier than ever. "Mel has changed a lot from the first film; he's really grown," Moynihan deadpans. In fact, Mel hasn't changed one bit. "Mel's a little lunatic, and he's still a crazy little sausage hound." He laughs. "He's always going to be Mel. Right now, he's running into a wall somewhere, and he's very happy about it."

When Gidget crafts her plan to disguise herself as a cat and go undercover into the cat lady's apartment to rescue Max's toy, dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and Mel agree to help. "I don't know if 'help' is the right word," Moynihan says laughing. "Mel means well. He tries to help. He probably helped a little with the costume and he runs interference to distract the other cats. He's good at that."

Moynihan's affection for his character remains unchanged, and he's even learned a valuable life lesson from him. "Mel's able to find the joy in absolutely anything," Moynihan says. "That's a pretty good thing to be able to do."

The actor also thinks that Captain Snowball is such a brilliant concept that Illumination shouldn't limit itself to a superhero bunny. "I think we should have other superhero pets," Moynihan says. "Mel should have his own Marvel Universe. The origin story of why Mel is crazy would be pretty great. Maybe the Mel we know is really a Clark Kent alter ego: he's acting crazy, but he's really a gentleman and a scholar."

It also should be noted that Moynihan's recording sessions for Pets 2 were radically more eventful than his co-stars' sessions were. "This one time I was about to record and the whole building exploded," he jokes. "We all flew miles into the air, and then all landed in the exact same spot and kept recording." Pause. "You can hear it in the movie if you listen quietly."

The Puppies
Tiny, Princess, Mimi, George and Pickles
Of all the adorable pets in Pets 2, none can surpass the giant-eyed puppies attending Pops' disobedience school: Tiny, Princess, Mimi, George and Pickles. Earnest, cuddly and very enthusiastic, they are the definition of irresistible. "The disobedience school began as an idea for the first film," Chris Renaud says. "We really liked the concept of an older dog passing down what he knows to a group of eager students. Basically, the funny idea was that puppies aren't born that cute, they have to learn it."

Of all of them, Pickles, a butterball of a puppy with a gruff, stuffed-up voice, delivers one of the film's biggest laughs after he proudly declares that he has successfully relieved himself in some human footwear. "Pickles is definitely the breakout star," Renaud says.

Henry Lynch
Although Liam, a toddler, doesn't speak for most of Pets 2, he is the impetus for the evolution of both Max and Duke, and he forms the film's emotional center. He is voiced by HENRY LYNCH, the young son of the film's screenwriter, Brian Lynch. "We basically asked Brian to record a bunch of stuff of Henry as we started making this film," Chris Renaud says. "Because Henry was so little, all we got in those early days was this wonderful gibberish. That said, it has such a genuine, endearing quality, I think the audience will love him immediately."

He'll also look immediately familiar to fans of the first film. "For his design, we leaned his looks towards his mom, Katie," Renaud says, "and we gave him those classic kid overalls."

The Score
Threading Three Narratives
To create the signature score for Pets 2, the filmmakers turned again to Academy Award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water, The Grand Budapest Hotel), who had written the music for the first film. "Alexandre has a diverse range of musical styles, but they're always distinct and have beautiful melodies," Chris Renaud says. "He did a marvelous job on the jazz-centric score of the first film, so we knew we wanted to continue working with him on Pets 2."

Desplat himself was eager to return. "Chris and Illumination gave me a lot of freedom in my work," Desplat says. "They encouraged new ideas and suggestions to ensure the most special creative outcome."

The score for the first Pets had presented Desplat with a rare opportunity in film-music composition. "I always dreamt of doing a large-scale score with a mix of both orchestra and band," Desplat says. "I was always inspired by the virtuosity, humor and style of Scott Bradley's scores from the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the 1940s and '50s. The first Pets film was an opportunity for me to make this type of precise score on a large scale."

Pets 2 offered new challenges because it required the music to perform in unique ways, threading together the tales of Max and Duke, Gidget and the cats, and Snowball and Daisy. "The music in this film is quite different from the first film because it moves with the narrative to help weave the three different story lines together musically," Renaud says. "One story line uses a Western theme, another has a haunted-house-tension theme and the last has a superhero theme."

Desplat crafted individual themes for some of the central characters as well. "Chris Renaud and I decided that there were circumstances in which we would score the moment and circumstances in which we would score the characters," Desplat says. "There are certain melodies or notes that we associated with certain characters, including the tiger, Max and Gidget. Just by hearing these few notes, the audience knows that it belongs to that character.

"I tried to be as detailed and precise as possible in connecting the music to the picture, while also making sure that it still sounded like a piece of music," Desplat continues. "It was important that the music hit things on the picture, which also took quite a long time to write."

The results were well worth the effort. "My favorite musical piece in this film is a very sweet melody that Alexandre wrote for Liam and Max," Renaud says. "I also love Snowball's superhero theme song, which has a 1950s superhero vibe." Desplat was pleased, too. "It was an incredible moment to hear the fantastic musicians play the music that I'd heard and dreamt of in my head all along," Desplat says. "They were able to bring the sounds to life."

The composer is optimistic that fans will be entertained and touched by the music, and how it has been integrated into the finished film. "Audiences will love the humor and the new characters in this film, but I think they'll like the music the most," Desplat says and laughs.

Lovely Day
A Hip Hop Take on a Soulful Classic
In the first Pets, Chris Renaud chose to use the classic 1977 Bill Withers song "Lovely Day" for a pivotal moment in the film, signifying the emotional bond between pets and their humans. "I picked the original song for the first film because I love the soulfulness of Bill Withers, but more importantly, it perfectly captured the feeling I was going for when the pets and their owners reunite," Chris Renaud says. "I actually sent it to the story artist, ERIC FAVELA, who boarded the scene, as sonic inspiration. To me, if you can build a scene around a song idea, it can be much stronger than just laying a song overtop of some visuals. You want that feeling of a real connection between music and picture."

So, for Pets 2, Renaud wanted to use a fresh, modern version of the same song over the film's end credits. "The thought that we could create a reprise of that song for the ending of the sequel, well, it just seemed like a great idea," Renaud says. "LUNCHMONEY LEWIS had done this version of 'Lovely Day,' which did not really sound much like the original musically but maintained its joyful essence. That made it a perfect fit for this film."

Lewis had been wary when he first had the idea of recording a new version of the 1970s hit. "I've always been a big fan of Bill Withers," Lewis says. "At first, I wondered whether I should even touch his classic 'Lovely Day,' but I knew I could do it justice in a 'LunchMoney' kind of way. I think it turned out dope. I wanted to preserve the storytelling, positive energy and play off the chorus of the original song, which is my favorite part. I knew I could never get anywhere close to Mr. Withers' version, but I hope I did it justice."

Learning that Renaud wanted to use his version for Pets 2 was a happy surprise. "I didn't really have anything specific in mind when I wrote the song," Lewis says. "I was just having fun in the studio on a late night, and when I heard that Chris Renaud and the studio dug it, I was excited because I loved the first Pets movie. I hope the song makes audiences feel good and uplifted and that they leave the theater with a smile."


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