Illumination shows great maturity with “The Secret Life of Pets” in terms of animation as well as producer Chris Meledandri’s fondness for buddy comedies wrapped around likable misfits. The diversity of animals and idiosyncrasies among breeds is noteworthy, as is the autumnal richness of New York, and the ensemble cast of comedians (including Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet and Kevin Hart) is funny and appealing.
Neurotic terrier, Max (C.K.), has a tough time adjusting to the arrival of a massive, if likable Newfoundland named Duke (Stonestreet), and his efforts to get rid of him results in crossing paths with “The Flushed Pets,” a group of abandoned animals led by the angry white rabbit Snowball (Hart).
“It has some of the DNA of the ‘Despicable Me’ films, and I’m drawn to that cartoony sensibility, but as I reflected on it, I realized that I have owned a pet all of my life except for the first couple of years when I was out of college,” remembered director Chris Renaud in stepping away from the hit franchise.
“Everybody pulled from memories of pet ownership. Even small things like a shot of Duke as a puppy in the snow took me back to my youth living in Vermont,” he added.
One of the challenges was how to animate 100 plus animals, ranging from a spider to a viper to an iguana. Unlike Illumination’s previous movies, however, these were all different body types requiring their own rigs. And although the studio had tackled fur and feathers before with “The Lorax,” this was a lot more sophisticated.
“There’s Mel [Bobby Moynihan], the hyperactive pug, who’s very springy, and Buddy [Hannibal Buress], the laid-back dachshund, who’s slinkier in the way he’s animated. We had fun playing with Buddy and the mixer. Finding those contrasts led to who they are,” Renaud continued.
Tackling New York, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, was the other great challenge. There’s a definite vertical orientation and one of the influences was French illustrator Sempé, who specialized in “New Yorker” covers. But they also wanted to accentuate that height because of the small animals in the city.
“I lived in New York for about 14 years, so it was fun remembering different things and working with the French team as we were trying to define the look of the city,” said Renaud. “In the end, what I liked about what we accomplished is that while a lot of the details aren’t specifically correct, it evokes a highly stylized version of New York. It feels like a glittering version of Manhattan and Brooklyn.”
“It’s a beautifully idealized version of the city and a contrast with ‘The Flushed Pets’ underground, the darker and edgier side of pet ownership,” added co-director Yarrow Cheney, production designer on the “Despicable Me” franchise.
Meanwhile, there were numerous attempts at a plot, including superpower and “Rear Window” riffs, but they realized that the best entry point into this world should be much simpler and more relatable.
“Everyone who’s brought a new pet into the home knows that it can be very traumatic, not only for the animals but for the owners as well,” Renaud suggested.
“The Secret Life of Pets” opens on Friday, July 8.