Pet antics have dominated YouTube for years, so it was only a matter of time before a movie came along tapping into the human qualities we project upon our companion animals. The Secret Life of Pets is the latest film from Illumination Entertainment, the makers of the Despicable Me movies and Minions. Our hero is Max (voiced by Louis CK), a terrier whose world is shattered when his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) – a big, unruly mongrel. The new canine ‘brothers’ immediately clash, which soon sees them picked up by dog catchers, only to be rescued by Snowball (Kevin Hart) – a former magician’s bunny and the leader of a gang of abandoned animals obsessed with getting revenge on humans. The two rivals are forced to join forces to get back home safely.
The idea for the movie came from Chris Meledandri, founder and CEO of Illumination Entertainment. “The inspiration was all of the pets my family and I have owned since I was a little kid,” Meledandri says. “We invested these pets with rich emotional lives. We’re highly curious about what they’re doing and thinking when we’re not around.”Despicable Me’s Chris Renaud took on directing duties and enjoyed putting himself into the mindset of a pampered pet. “Katie is the centre of Max’s universe,” he explains, “and he expects that’s how she feels as well, until she brings home this other dog.”
“When you meet Duke you’re not sure if you’re going to like him or not because he comes off as a tough guy and a little bit of a bully,” says Modern Family star Stonestreet about his character. “He needs a home, so he does what he needs to do, which is use his physicality and his girth to bully Max – but Max outsmarts him.”
When Max and Duke find themselves on their way to the pound, they encounter the villainous rabbit Snowball, who wants to start a pet revolution. “The great thing about the character is that he has levels,” says Kevin Hart, the stand-up comedy megastar making his animation voicing debut. “He’s a cute, cuddly bunny who in the blink of an eye turns into this psychopath. At the same time, he’s quite insecure.”
Both actors enjoyed the performance challenges of the soundbooth. Says Stonestreet: “It’s pretty fun to just rely on the director and the piece of paper in front of you with the description of what’s going on.” Hart, who routinely gives his stand-up act to stadium crowds of 50,000, concurs: “The good thing about me is, I can entertain myself I think I’m pretty funny.”
The film’s voice cast also includes Steve Coogan, Lake Bell, Jenny Slate and Albert Brooks, playing cats, a Pomeranian and a hawk. The challenge for the animators, however, was not to anthropomorphise them too much so that the audience could relate to them as domestic animals. “Our goal was to have the audience look at the actions of these pets and think that is something their own pet would do,” says co-director Yarrow Cheney.
The actors found it easy to relate to the film’s premise. Hart has two pets – a Doberman pincher and a miniature pincher – while Stonestreet grew up around dogs, cats, pigs and cows. “I had a dog for 15 years, Coleman – there’s no doubt that I was inspired by his behaviours.”