As an entertainment journalist, I don’t usually watch children’s movies. But now that I have a kid of my own, I figured, why not? And that’s how I ended up in a theater watching “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” feeling as though the main story line of the film was speaking only to me.
“The Secret Life of Pets 2” continues the story of a dog named Max — this time, voiced by Patton Oswalt instead of Louis C.K. — as he acclimates to domestic life with his owner’s new beau. It’s not long before he learns that they’re expecting their first child. And what first manifests as anxiety over the possible havoc this new child can wreak on his life quickly blossoms into an undying love for the baby boy, who we learn is named Liam. As it often does with first-time parenthood, that love evolves into a new kind of anxiety over protecting the child from any and every possible threat known to man.
Screenwriter Brian Lynch (“Minions,” “The Secret Life of Pets”) acknowledged his own parenting anxiety while we discussed the movie. The key to life is apparently to be more like Rooster — the seasoned prairie dog voiced by Harrison Ford in the sequel — who teaches Max that fear is a part of life, not a hindrance. During our conversation, Lynch went on to explain the personal inspiration behind Max’s story. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What was your process for writing this sequel? As a parent with an 8-month-old at home, I’m curious if something specific happened in your life that informed the story of Max and the addition of this new baby into his life.
Originally, Max was not going to look forward to the kid. Max was going to have problems with the kid until the end — when he was going to not only accept Liam but love him. But one of the problems was that it was a little too much like the first one in that Max has a problem with a newcomer and by the end, he learns to appreciate them. It popped in my headthat it shouldn’t be about, you know, not looking forward to the kid or learning what’s good about having a kid, because anyone that’s going to see this movie is either a kid or knows one or has one, probably. It should be about the excitement and the love you have for him, and how great they are — and the problems that come with that love, and that excitement.
The issues Max is dealing with in the movie are very relatable, especially to new parents. Did you have the parents in the audience in mind when you wrote this?
Oh, for sure. I’m writing it for everybody. And for myself. I want parents to walk out of this, like, having laughed a lot but also, you know, seeing themselves in it. The first test screening we had was the best feeling, because we got steady laughs throughout the whole movie. And then when the lights are coming up, we could hear sniffling. We saw a lot of parents hugging their kids. What we wanted to happen happened in a bigger way than I ever anticipated. I don’t think I’ve written a character in an Illumination movie that’s close to me as Max is in “Pets 2,” for sure. Like, you’d do anything for the kid. But also, you kind of want to keep him in a cage to keep him safe. And you know you can’t do that.
Have you figured out a way to channel those fears?
I’m still nervous when it comes to my son. But I have a trick that I really try to remember to do: When I’m on a plane, if there’s bad turbulence, I look to the flight attendants. If they’re not nervous, there’s no need to be nervous. Similarly, my wife is way cooler than I am and the best parent ever. So, I often look to her to see her reaction when it comes to Henry. If she’s not there, I often try to figure out how she’d react and then do my best version of that.
The thing is, Henry sees every reaction I have, even if I think I’m being subtle. So I never want to freak him out. I think I’m getting better. I hope I am. I have stopped wrapping him in bubble wrap when we go out, so that’s something.
Harrison Ford voices Rooster, the more experienced prairie dog we meet once Max takes a trip out to the family farm. Did you base Rooster off someone from your own life?
My dad, definitely, when I was growing up. He’s a little more Rooster than Max. He was, like, you know, you’ve gotta learn for yourself. Just do it! And that stuck in my head. But also, I have a lot of friends with kids, and I try to be more like them. Sometimes, I see my kid being a little timid when it comes to, like, maybe jumping off something that’s not that high. He’ll see that I go, “Oh, oh, be careful.” And I see my friends, and they’re like, “Do it, jump!” My wife’s even more of a Rooster than I am. She’s a combo of both, which I think, by the way, is the way to go. I think you should be half Rooster and half Max. It’s okay to be, you know, a little intimidated by stuff and aware of danger, but you can’t let it ruin your life. You gotta live it.
In reference to modern-day TV shows and movies, what is your take on how fathers are represented?
I think we’re evolving beyond the “How can he raise a kid? He’s a man” humor. I always appreciate when the dad in a movie doesn’t just teach the kid how to burp, while the kid helps the dad realize, “Raising a kid is harder than I thought. But, hey, maybe it ain’t so bad!”
I love being a dad, and I’m pretty good at, so it’s nice when I get to see that attitude reflected in movies. I get that it’s funny to make the dad harried and not know how to be sensitive, but there are alternatives. I love the portrayal of the father in Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” He’s not perfect, but he’s trying. And Miles’s father in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was just amazing. He was tough, he had trouble talking to Miles at times, but he cared. And in the end, he gave the kid the strength to overcome his fears.
I watched that movie with my son, then 5 years old, in the theater. When Miles’s dad gives Miles the pep talk through the dorm room door, I started tearing up. I looked down at Henry, and he was, too. He climbed on my lap and hugged me for the rest of the movie. If we can do anything remotely like that with parents and their kids when they see “Pets 2,” that’s a win.
Now having seen the movie come to fruition, and knowing that your son Henry actually voiced Liam in the movie, have you achieved any sense of closure?
You know, it did give me a little closure. It’s funny to have the inspiration for the movie also be the voice literally of the character that he inspired. Above all else, it gave me and Henry this thing that we made together, that he’ll always have. At the premiere, he held onto my arm during the end of it, as they’re watching Liam go to preschool. There’s my kid getting it, and being moved by it. And I hope that he shows it to his kids. And when it’s on TV, I hope he remembers that it was a thing that we did together. The reason that story line is there is because of him — it’s because of my love for him. That’s huge to me. I mean, the rest of the movie, I think, is funny, and I hope people love it. But, at the very least, my son and I have this work of art that we made together. And that’s pretty impressive.
Aaron Pruner is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles.
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