The animated superhero film is a blast for kids and dog lovers but may be kryptonite to everyone else.
Being a pet owner can enrich your life and open your heart to certain movies you may otherwise ignore. If I had watched DC’s new animated children’s film, League of Super-Pets, before being a proud doggy dad, I would have rolled my eyes. I likely would’ve declared it a blatant cash grab that distracts kids with cute talking animals, loud explosions, mediocre animation, and plenty of needle drops that date the film quicker than Shrek.
To be fair, Super-Pets is all these things. Still, director Jared Stern, who also co-writes the film with John Whittington, brings just enough sophistication and humor to the proceedings to keep comic book nerd parents from losing their minds while their little nerds in training enjoy the cute animal superhero action. The filmmakers also know how to burrow into the hearts of dog parents. After all, they know their beloved dog child would fly into the sun to save their owners.
The film has a super-sized ensemble like most comic book films these days. However, it centers on Krypto (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a dog that jumps in the escape pod with baby Kal-El as their home planet of Krypton explodes around them. Once on Earth, they’re now fully grown into Superman and his super-powered best friend. The film establishes that they’re best friends through the power of montage. The audience watches the duo being best friends, helping trains from derailing and playing fetch with huge trees ripped from the ground, all to the backdrop of Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” playing on the soundtrack. How else can movies convey best friendship?
The problem is that Krypto only has one friend, so when Superman (voiced here by John Krasinski) begins to get serious with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde), jealousy and lots of “Cryers” ice cream eating ensue for poor lonely Krypto. To help him find extra companionship, Superman takes Krypto to a nearby shelter. There the pooch meets the lovable outcast pets no one wants to adopt.
The leader is Ace (Kevin Hart), a street tough dog with a sad past. It’s shown later in the film in a sequence that feels like someone looked up the Jessie scene in a Toy Story 2 script and copied and pasted it into Final Draft (because it’s about dog abandonment, though, it still punches the heart).
The rest of the pet crew includes a hairless guinea pig named Lulu (Kate McKinnon) with world-dominating intentions, a pig with self-esteem issues (Vanessa Bayer), an anxious squirrel (Diego Luna), and an old, foul-mouthed turtle who’s horny for construction worker helmets (Natasha Lyonne). When Lulu gets her paws on some orange kryptonite, she gets superpowers and escapes the shelter to take down Superman and the rest of the Justice League. Luckily, the rest of the animals also get superpowers even though their new abilities are obvious (Ace gets super strength, horny turtle gets super speed, etc.).
Super-Pets feels more like a long pilot to an inevitable HBOMax show than a substantial film that can stand on its own.
They all team up with Krypto to rescue the Justice League and overcome their shortcomings in the process, from crippling self-doubt to fear of loved ones growing away from them. Great children’s films can hide lessons about loving yourself or confronting your fears subtly without force-feeding you the lesson. Unfortunately, this is not one of those children’s films.
The film drills lessons into the audience like Superman’s fist going through a brick wall. In one scene, Ace spells out to Krypto the pets’ fears. Just in case kids can’t figure out that a pig who can grow and shrink may have bodily discomfort. The one awesome lesson driven home in a more discreet way (if you ignore the PSA that may or may not play before each showing of the film) is that shelter animals are, in fact, superheroes who have unlimited potential and bottomless wells of love to give people.
Another factor that pulls the film out of an unbearable purgatory is the voice acting, which is excellent for the most part here. Starting with McKinnon, she plays a diabolical guinea pig with the same mixture of confident silliness and Shakespearean gravitas Cate Blanchett uses to great effect in Thor: Ragnarok. There’s also Keanu Reeves as Batman, who continues a now great tradition of Dark Knight voice acting after Kevin Conroy and Will Arnett.
Arnett voices the Caped Crusader in The Lego Batman Movie, which also happens to be co-written by Stern and Whittington. While not as subversive or hilarious as the original Lego Movie, Lego Batman successfully turns Bruce Wayne’s damaged psyche into a hilarious cringe comedy like the scene where he waits an awkward amount of time for a frozen dinner to finish in the microwave.
It makes sense that Reeve’s Batman in Super-Pets leans into the same self-doubting insecurities as Lego Batman, but he’s also the best part of the film despite showing up a handful of times. For example, after a tender moment between Krypto and Superman, Batman says, under his breath, “I miss my parents.” Out of context, it’s tragic. With Keanu’s sincerity and the filmmaker’s irreverent love of the character, though, it turns into the film’s funniest and most thought-provoking line.
Super-Pets feels more like a long pilot to an inevitable HBOMax show than a substantial film that can stand on its own, but it’s still a harmless and fun time for kids dipping their toes into the comic book world. Its humor is just juvenile enough for them to enjoy it and just mature enough for them to feel in on the joke. There was a Paw Patrol joke that killed with the children in my screening, and made me excited that these kids may be recognizing meta-humor for the first time. Also, similar to how Shrek introduced a generation of kids to Leonard Cohen, we can only hope this movie gets 12-year-olds into Sturgill Simpson.
DC’s League of Super-Pets is lining up for pets starting July 29 in theaters.