As superhero movies have grown more convoluted, self-serious and ludicrously expensive, it’s fallen to their animated counterparts to keep the multiverses grounded in actual fun. Think the unserious, self-referential madness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or The Lego Batman Movie, a zany, film-length jab at Batman’s relentless darkness, isolation and general emo-ness. DC League of Super-Pets, from Lego Batman writers Jared Stern and John Whittington, takes some similar lighthearted digs at Batman, but he’s a side character to the irresistible stars of the show: man’s best friend, plus some pals. Why can’t animals be super, too?
The 105-minute romp, directed by Stern and Sam Levine, shares with the Lego Batman Movie a deadpan sense of humor, frenetic action, reflexive winks for adults and cartoon harmlessness for kids. This vision of Metropolis is clean and horizon-less, presided over by billionaires with skyscrapers and the Justice League. A somewhat hapless Superman (John Krasinski) emergencies in tandem with his canine companion Krypto (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), sent to earth as a puppy to look after the infant Kal-El. Krypto is as suitable for crime-fighting as his owner (flying, laser eyes, godly strength) but comically bad at being a dog – no sniffing, no running, and his poop smells like sandalwood.
Concerned that the clingy, socially awkward Krypto will need a friend after he pops the question to Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde), Superman drags Krypto to a shelter and encounters Ace (Kevin Hart), a dog’s dog to Krypto’s unrelatable weirdo “Bark Kent” . (Super-Pets is thus another vehicle for the comedy odd couple that is The Rock and Hart, whose chemistry carries over even without the sight gag of their size contrast.) Ace has bided his time behind bars by convincingly his fellow shelter rejects to look forward to nice life at a farm upstate. Said rejects include scheming hairless guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a former lab rat for evil billionaire Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) who’s determined to follow through on her beloved owner’s dastardly plans.
When Lulu manages to get her hands on some orange kryptonite – a derivative of the deadly green kind that only works on animals – she becomes an adorable (to her chagrin) diva villain, and accidentally turbocharges the abilities of the other shelter pets. Ace becomes indestructible, an unworthy shell for this tear-jerking past. People-pleasing potbellied pig PB (Vanessa Bayer), a superhero-fan girl, can change size. Neurotic squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) shoots electronic bolts. Wizened turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne, perfectly dry) develops Flash-like superspeed but not the wherewithal to refrain from swearing in a kids movie (it’s never not funny, and all bleeped).
None of them truly believe in themselves (yet), nor have a good handle on their abilities. But Krypto, rendered powerless and rattled by his bestie’s split affections, needs them to rescue “Supes” and the Justice League – misanthropic Batman (Keanu Reeves), brawny Wonder Woman (Jameela Jamil), Aquaman (Jemaine Clement), The Flash (John) Early), Green Lantern (Dascha Polanco) and Cyborg (Daveed Diggs) – from Lulu and her really funny army of souped-up guinea pigs. (Tto be clear, as Lulu is, these are not hamsters).
The starry voice cast is without exception excellent, but McKinnon is a particular standout – the trailers underplay how central her devilishly endearing performance as Lulu is to the film’s fun. The cast’s vibrancy carries the film through the requisite action sequences and unremarkable animation that doubles down on the cute (the villain is, again, a squeaky guinea pig with a kitten sidekick who coughs up hairball grenades). Stern and Whittington’s vision of Metropolis isn’t quite as deliriously irreverent as in the Lego world, but the film has enough bite for older viewers. The slapstick humor and elastic physics – lots of explosions and destruction but no harm – are for children, the swipes at Musk-esque billionaires for adults (a news headline after Luthor’s arrest: “Wealthy Person Actually Goes to Jail”).
True to its animated predecessors, Super-Pets pulls off what other superhero entries have quarreled to summon from the CGI universe: lighthearted fun and self-aware humor woven with real themes – the fear of change, learning to love friends through transitions, trusting that love will remain through the seasons. The Super-Pets aren’t the most witty or cutting bunch – and no doubt destined to be plush toys on store shelves soon – but there’s little reason to resist the cute.