DC League of Super-Pets hits theaters on July 29, 2022.
There are times when DC League of Super-Pets is both funny and richly conceived, with wordless montages and silent tableaus that ride the line between mythic and ridiculous. After all, it’s a story about Superman’s pet dog Krypto, a minor fixture in the comics and shows, bumped up here to an integral part of the hero’s origin. But no matter how thoughtful or energetic the movie gets, it’s often hampered by its voice cast of celebrity screen actors, who by and large don’t have the skill set to breathe life into a children’s movie. If there were a version of the film with the dialogue track removed, it would probably be more effective.
Via pretty sci-fi designs and doe-eyed characters, Super-Pets re-tells the Man of Steel’s tragic childhood origin, only this time, his alien parents load a puppy into his pod for his protection as they jettison him to Earth. Before the story kicks off, it uses this intro to build a sincere foundation about lifelong buddies — but it takes a sharp tonal turn when it cuts to modern day. It is, first and foremost, a tongue-in-cheek comedy despite its occasionally dramatic moments, and its montage of a day in the life of Krypto and Superman is breezy and picturesque. However, it’s a lot less engaging when the characters stop flying and start talking to each other.
Super-Pets rests on the performance of a monotone Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who voices Krypto as if he were reading old wrestling promos he’s long forgotten (though not as his smarmy ring persona, but as Dwayne Johnson the brand, the Instagram tequila salesman, the guy who exists as more as a concept, at this point, than he does as a real performer). Superman is voiced by John Krasinski, who has so little kindness or charisma as the character that it’s a relief when he leaves the movie for lengthy stretches. However, Krasinski’s boy scout hero and his Johnson-voiced super-canine make up most of the first act, a story of Krypto’s jealousy as his best bud gets closer to reporter Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde).
Superman hopes to find Krypto a companion to keep him busy, which is where the film’s co-lead enters the scene: a shelter dog named Ace, who’s meant to have a gruff disposition, but who Kevin Hart voices as if he were being forced to at gunpoint. Luckily, Ace is surrounded by a handful of other potential pets waiting for adoption, who add a sense of color to the proceedings. Vanessa Bayer voices P.B., an enthusiastic potbellied pig and Wonder Woman fangirl; Diego Luna plays Chip, an anxious squirrel; Natasha Lyonne voices the foul-mouthed, century-old turtle Merton, who can barely see; and rounding out the shelter crew is the hairless Guinea pig Lulu, a former Lex Corp experiment who now has megalomaniacal plans of her own. Ace, the group’s de-facto leader, tells them sunny stories about “a farm upstate,” because it doesn’t seem like they’re going to be adopted anytime soon.
Elsewhere, career baddie Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) is thwarted by Superman, Krypto and The Justice League — Batman (Keanu Reeves), Wonder Woman (Jameela Jamil), Aquaman (Jemaine Clement), The Flash (John Early), Cyborg (Daveed Diggs), and the Green Lantern Jessica Cruz (Dascha Polanco) — but his plan to gain superpowers using an orange meteorite has unintended fallout. A shard of the substance ends up at the shelter, granting the various animals powers of their own. P.B. can shrink, or grow ten stories tall. Chip has lightning powers like Emperor Palpatine. Merton, ironically, gets super speed — though she reminds her team that she “still can’t see [bleep]” — while Ace becomes invulnerable, and Lulu gains near-limitless telekinesis on par with the Dark Phoenix. Krypto, on the other hand, loses his powers after ingesting some Kryptonite, so when Lulu captures the Justice League in order to impress Lex, the loyal Superdog has no choice but to enlist the shelter animals’ help, despite their initial reluctance.
There are plenty of jokes and references worth a chuckle as Super-Pets builds its plot, between Krypto’s spectacled alter ego “Bark Kent,” his catchphrase of “pup, up, and away,” and a hologram of his late father Dog-El (Keith David). But while these allusions all poke fun at DC lore, the movie’s other comedic instincts grow stale pretty quickly. For one thing, the film’s conceit is that none of the animals are actually speaking English to the human heroes, so it’s funny the first time it cuts from a close-up of intense dialogue to a wide shot of Krypto barking at an incredulous Superman (or likewise, Lulu squeaking at her human crush, Lex), but it’s a little less funny the second time, and a whole lot less funny when it becomes the only real go-to for animal-human interactions.
Similarly, there are only so many times you can use the same kind of tension-diffusing gag of closeups of serious dialogue being undercut by snarky responses (as dramatic music cuts to silence) before it feels mechanical. To make matters worse, it’s almost always Krypto or Ace doing the snarking, so the reactions are rarely loaded with something worthwhile. Johnson and Hart’s apparent improv is filled less with actual jokes — i.e. setups and punchlines — and more with off-the-cuff references to nothing in particular, as if outtakes were all that were recorded. It’s palpably, painfully awkward, making for the kind of animated movie where even children are at a loss for when to laugh, or what to laugh at (the kids at my screening weren’t having a very good time).
That said, director Jared Stern makes certain sequences sing, despite the personality black-hole at the movie’s center. The action is always momentous, with characters using their power sets in tandem as the “camera” sweeps between buildings, catching glimpses of a detailed world (DC die-hards will be thrilled to see a Big Belly Burger and an O’Shaughnessy’s on every corner). The glistening Metropolis makes for a worthwhile battleground when things go awry, if only because you don’t want damage to come to its gorgeous Art Deco facades. The movie’s soundscape is just as thoughtfully conceived, with music that draws from classic Superman and Batman themes at key moments, but for the most part, Steve Jablonsky’s propulsive and original score grants the animal heroes a sense of sincere gravitas, even if their respective stories don’t always manage to.
There is, for instance, an attempt at a wistful, Toy Story-like flashback centering Ace’s abandonment, but like almost every other character, he doesn’t really have a story until and unless it becomes relevant to the main plot. So, it doesn’t carry the weight it should, and it certainly doesn’t help that Hart sounds positively unenthused. The more the film goes on, the more its silences and action beats land, but the more its jokes and frequent dialogue scenes grate, bringing things to a halt. Johnson and Hart may have on-screen chemistry (at least during their press tours), but neither one has the chops to create a fully or even partially formed character through voice alone, let alone a character whose jokes are delivered with a sense of fun. Keanu Reeves is a clear exception, as a hilariously self-effacing Batman with pitch-perfect timing, but unfortunately, he isn’t in the movie all that much.
DC League of Super-Pets is inoffensive, passable entertainment, but its filmmaking and design elements are clearly aiming for more than just “okay.” Ultimately, it’s another Rock/Hart vehicle, but one where the comedic duo drags down the whole production, rendering even its best, most thoughtfully conceived and propulsive scenes a blur.
The DC Movies in (Chronological) Order