Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Jungle Cruise), Kevin Hart (Central Intelligence), Kate McKinnon (Bombshell), John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Vanesssa Bayer (Trainwreck), Natahsa Lyonne (Russian Doll), Diego Luna (Rogue One), Thomas Middleditch (Godzilla: King of the Monsters), Ben Schwartz (Sonic the Hedgehog), Keanu Reeves (The Matrix)
Director: Jared Stern (Happy Anniversary)
Writers: Jared Stern and John Whittington (The Lego Batman Movie)
Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes
Release Date: 29th July (US, UK)
Synopsis: When Superman and the Justice League are captured by Lex Luthor’s telekinetic guinea pig Lulu, Krypto the Superdog must team up with a group of recently-superpowered pets to save his best friend from certain doom.
When certain fanboys on the internet get all self-serious about how DC Comics is supposed to be dark and gritty, I often recall how at one point Superman had a whole cadre of animal compatriots, including a horse named Comet and a monkey called Beppo (yes, these are all real. Look them up). That said, other than the Hanna-Barbera-inspired animated series Krypto the Superdog from the mid-2000s, mainstream pop culture hasn’t exactly been widely exposed to this more playful side of the universe. Now though, as Warner Bros tries to diversify their DC Films slate beyond the core franchise, they’re dipping their toes into the children’s animation market with what I’m sure some executive pitched as “Paw Patrol for superheroes”. The final result is a film that is thankfully far from the bottom of the barrel as far as kids’ entertainment goes, delivering enough spectacle and laughs to entertain young audiences and be tolerable for parents, but doesn’t exactly soar as high as any of its superpowered stars.
DC League of Super-Pets is a middle-of-the-road animated movie on almost every level, and its storytelling is no exception. It follows a very basic “protagonist must learn to make friends to achieve goal” plot you’ve seen in countless children’s films and barely ever deviates from it, making it an extremely predictable experience for anyone beyond adolesence. Barring one dangling plot thread that seems to be setting up some kind of “liar revealed” moment (I’m glad they don’t pull that tired cliche, but they set it up and then never pay it off, so it’s frustrating regardless), the whole thing is competently put together and has enough heart to avoid being cynical, but there’s absolutely nothing here that you couldn’t find done better or any other kind of unique selling point.
What ultimately makes the movie fun is its irreverent tone and solid sense of humour, which has much more of a 90s Saturday morning cartoon vibe mixed with a little classic Looney Tunes. The riffs on DC and the superhero genre in general are mostly played out, including yet more tired gags about Clark Kent’s glasses and people thinking Aquaman is lame, which is especially disappointing as we’ve seen them pull this off better in projects like The Lego Batman Movie or even Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. That said, the more character-based gags and random background jokes inspire more than a handful of laughs (I’m still chortling at a news headline that simply read “Rich Man Actually Goes to Prison”), along with a few moments of genuine nuance that give it some heft, but these bits of brilliance only highlight how easily this movie could have aspired to be more than average. I was hardly expecting something emotionally resonant like I would from a Disney, Pixar or even higher-end DreamWorks production, but it lacks an interesting take on a source material ripe for commentary and delivers little more on a thematic level than “having friends is good, and you should adopt a pet”.
Celebrity stunt casting in animated movies has been a big problem since the early days of DreamWorks, and whilst thankfully they’ve calmed down on the practice a lot in recent years, other studios are still more than happy to slap a famous name on a poster whilst experienced voice actors pick up the scraps. The cast list for DC League of Super-Pets is utterly ridiculous, with even bit characters who aren’t around for more than a scene or two played by name talent; like, why pay for Busy Phillips or Dan Fogler to come in and say a handful of lines a piece? On the other hand, in terms of actual quality and appropriateness to the roles, they’ve surprisingly hit the mark. When it was first announced that perennial duo Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart would be the leads, I assumed the latter would voice Krypto while the former would play Ace, but the opposite turned out to be true yet it surprisingly works. Johnson is definitely the weaker of the two, feeling too stitled and rehearsed even in moments Krypto is supposed to be more reactionary, but his natural charisma shines through and works for this overconfident and conceited interpretation of the character. Meanwhile, this version of Ace is a far cry from previous depictions, but Hart gives a suprisingly nuanced performance that avoids his usual OTT persona in favour of a more worldweary affect; after so many interchangable Hart performances, it’s nice to see him take a step back and do something different.
When it comes to the rest of Krypto’s new friends, Vanessa Bayer and Diego Luna are fine enough as the size-changing pig PB and electrically-charged squirrel Chip, but Natasha Lyonne as the speedy tortoise Merton is an absolute scene-stealer; every other line of hers made me chuckle, if not laugh out loud. Kate McKinnon takes the villainous lead as the maniacal Lulu and revels in the camp of it, whilst her timid fire-and-ice sidekicks are amusingly voiced by another inseperable duo Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz. On the human side, John Krasinski voices Superman and does a solid job at portraying an admittedly generic interpretation of the Man of Steel (still, it’s more suitable casting than his other recent superhero outing…). Keanu Reeves’ gravelly tones make for a great Batman performance, but unfortunately most of his material sounds like rejected Will Arnett bits from The Lego Batman Movie, whilst the likes of Jameela Jamil, Jemaine Clement and Daveed Diggs amongst others fill in the rest of the Justice League. Faring much better though is Marc Maron as Lex Luthor in a truly inspired piece of casting and, paired with a wonderfully-dry Maya Erskine as Mercy Graves, has me wishing they’d somehow retcon this pair into the live-action DC Universe.
On an aesthetic level, Super-Pets also just looks…fine. Despite having a reportedly heftier budget than other animated hits this year like The Bad Guys and even Minions 2, the production often looks more like an made-for-TV Cartoon Network movie than a theatrically-released feature film. The whole aesthetic is again very cartoony, with a lot of obvious inspiration taken from Bruce Timm’s DCAU but with a little Teen Titans Go! energy, and the fluidity and energy of the animation brings to mind Genndy Taratakovsky. This stylisation works great for the animal characters, and I love the quirky designs like how PB’s cheeks take up so much of her face or the bumper stickers on Merton’s shell. However, there’s something about the designs and rendering of especially the human characters that just gives off a cheap vibe. Everything just looks so fragile, like it’s made of plastic and porcelain, and that absolutely can be a deliberate stylistic choice (i.e. Star Wars: The Clone Wars), but it just doesn’t really vibe here. In a post Spider-Verse world, I think audiences are clamouring for animated films that look wildly different from each other, and Super-Pets is sitting somewhere awkwardly in the middle still trying to figure out if it wants to look like Hotel Transylvania or Despicable Me.
When all is said and done, DC League of Super-Pets accomplishes its main mission but doesn’t take the time and effort to be more than just OK. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or that it shouldn’t exist, but it’s just frustrating because it misses out on a lot of obvious potential that would have taken only a little more thought. If you’ve got kids who really, really want to see this movie, take them. They’ll absolutely have a good time with it, and you’ll probably be more than satisfied too, especially if you’re a DC fan who’ll notice all the tinier in-jokes. But if you don’t have kids or yours aren’t particularly clamouring to watch it, then there’s really no rush to see it an cinema. This movie feels perfect for a rainy-day matinee or to stream on a family movie night, and sometimes that’s all you want and it’s OK for movies like that to exist. Those movies just aren’t exactly paying full price for.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10