I confess I didn’t have high expectations for DC League of Super-Pets. In fact, I included it in this month’s edition of “TFINYW” for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that the Secret Life of Pets movies kind of soured me on the idea of animated movies about domesticated animals, including using Kevin Hart for one of the voices of said animals. Further, while their real-life bromance is kind of charming, on film the combination of Hart and Dwayne Johnson has honestly never worked for me, even if the tagline for Central Intelligence (“Sometimes all you need is a little Hart and a big Johnson”) was objectively funny as hell.
But I’ve gone back and forth as I’ve watched the trailer more and more. Some of the jokes looked decent – chief among them Keanu Reeves as Batman seeing himself in squeak toy form and growling that the toy better be officially licensed – and honestly, the more cartoonish takes on DC comics heroes and villains tend to make for the better films outside of those directly about the Dark Knight. The more tongue-in-cheek the project – like Shazam! or The Suicide Squad, not to mention the Harley Quinn TV series (season 3 just started this week!) – the more fun they end up being. So maybe it was worth giving this inessential bit of kiddie entertainment a try.
Well, it worked. The bar was not high, but the movie certainly cleared it, and I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining it was. Most of the jokes landed, the animation was fairly well done, especially in comparison to the likes of Illumination’s pet-centric franchise, and there are even a couple of sneakily affecting scenes from the standpoint of morals and sentimentality. It won’t win any awards, nor should it, but this is an altogether perfectly fine movie to take your kids to, especially if you want to expose them to the lighter side of comic book fare.
The movie begins with what is honestly a pretty heavy scene, emotionally speaking. Baby Kal-El (John Krasinski as an adult) plays with puppy Krypto (Johnson) just as Krypton itself is about to blow. As his parents (Alfred Molina and Lena Headey in what amount to cameos) put the future Superman in the escape pod, Krypto sneaks onboard just in time to launch, eventually comforting the crying infant as his world is obliterated. It’s surprisingly touching, and the empathy shown through Krypto’s actions and facial movements is some truly superlative animation.
Thankfully, before the film threatens to ask any really hard questions (like how a dog can survive for 20+ years, even if it is a space dog), we cut straight to present-day Metropolis and the silly domestic life Krypto leads with his person. He wakes Clark up for “Walk O’Clock” by talking (we hear English, the human characters hear only barks and yips), sitting on his face (oh bless those innocent eyes who have no idea what this means), and straight up flying and lifting him out of bed. It’s just the right amount of cutely stupid to work. Krypto’s life is perfect with Superman, fighting crime while also comically trying to maintain a “secret identity” by simply wearing glasses. However, Krypto has problems socializing with other animals, something that many pet owners can relate to, and he’s actively jealous of Clark’s relationship with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde)
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a group of shelter animals longs to escape their collective cages and live a better life. They’re chiefly led by Ace, a boxer dog voiced by Hart. Ace tells the group that one day they’ll all get to live together on a “farm upstate,” which is probably the most dangerous euphemism in this movie, as the adults know far better than the kiddies what the real connotation is. Thankfully, there’s only a brief comment that such an arrangement “doesn’t seem ominous at all,” to allow us to wave it off with a chuckle. Honestly, in a rare case of narrative maturity for movies like this, we later learn from Ace that he only tells this to the others to give them something to hope for, as he never truly believed they’d ever leave the shelter, and the lie is treated for what it is, a loving bit of comfort for his friends rather than as a means to trigger third act conflict. In all seriousness, Hart’s entire performance is refreshingly low-key and subdued, no screaming or insane antics, and his eventual dynamic with Johnson works because they’re on visibly equal terms for once.
Anyway, as Superman, Krypto, and the rest of the Justice League thwart Lex Luthor (Marc Maron doing an excellent take on the classic baddie) in his latest scheme to gain superpowers from orange kryptonite, a tiny chunk is broken off and seized by Lulu, a hairless guinea pig that Lex himself once experimented on. Voiced by Kate McKinnon, she lives with the other shelter pets, and has figured out that the kryptonite doesn’t work on humans but will on the rest of the animal kingdom. She takes the shard, giving herself ALL the powers, freeing herself for her own evil scheme, including kidnapping the heroes. The rest of the animals in the shelter are exposed to the shard as well, however, and they too gain enhanced abilities. Ace becomes invulnerable. PB (voiced by Vanessa Bayer), a pot-bellied pig who worships Wonder Woman (Jameela Jamil), can now change her size at will. A red squirrel named Chip (Diego Luna) channels electricity. Nearsighted turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne) naturally gets super speed. When Krypto tells them of his plight, they agree to help in exchange for the chance to live on the Kent family farm in Smallville, thus making good on Ace’s aspirational promise.
Now, let’s be clear here. There are no stakes to any of this. In fact, the movie is about 90% jokes, mostly sight gags, and not all of them work. For example, Krypto calls the aforementioned chew toy “Squeaky Bruce!” yet no one else seems to know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Merton curses on three separate occasions (two “shit”s and a “fuck”), but they’re bleeped, which just shouldn’t happen in movies. Either commit to the bit and risk a PG-13 rating, or just have her say something slightly cleaner, because the bleep is pointless. And of course, it should be noted that the inciting incident for Lulu’s diabolical scheme happens while Krypto is throwing a hissy fit, eating “Cryers” ice cream (instead of Breyers) and listening to “Bad Blood,” which once again proves my theory that Taylor Swift ruins everything. Just remember, everyone, Led Zeppelin will always be better than Taylor, because at least they were willing to do a song called “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
But the jokes that do work REALLY work. Kate McKinnon is excellent in her sarcastic commentary as she slowly takes over Metropolis with an army of mutated guinea pigs, including a stellar running gag about her disdain for hamsters. When Luthor is taken to Stryker’s Island Penitentiary, the on-screen chyron for Lois’ news broadcast reads, “Wealthy Man Actually Sent to Prison,” which is just a delicious gag for the adults in the audience. There’s even a scene that I won’t go into too much detail on because I want you to experience it yourself, but suffice to say Superman sees Krypto with other animals and his reaction is so perfect that I laughed harder than I have in weeks. People were honestly starting to stare at me.
Even more important than the good jokes, I think, are the chances where the film could have taken the easy and lazy way out but didn’t. This is best illustrated by Krypto’s temporary weakness. Lulu hides a sliver of green kryptonite in a piece of cheese, which he giddily eats because he’s a dog, thus robbing him of his powers. After talking to Ace, the theory is that Krypto won’t have his strength back until he passes the stone, so to speak. Blissfully though, they don’t make a whole “ass” deal out of it. Krypto simply gets his powers back at an opportune moment, and they say he must have pooped out the kryptonite, with Ace commenting that, to call back to an earlier line, Krypto’s dookie actually smells like sandalwood, and there’s no visual confirmation. That’s it for the toilet humor (aside from one bit where Ace pees on something in public), and it’s almost miraculous. Freaking Illumination, Sony, or Dreamworks (and even lesser Disney films if we’re being honest) would have made this the entire second act, with Krypto casually farting puffs of green smoke every other scene before he finally lets loose with a giant pile that causes half the city to faint, followed inevitably by a one-liner about someone having to scoop it up. But here? Here it’s just treated as a thing that happens and we move on. I could kiss the writers for this!
More than anything though, what makes this movie work is how well it tackles the emotional bond we as humans have with our animals. Krypto is hopelessly devoted to Clark, to the point that he sees Lois as an existential threat despite both of them giving him nothing but love. And where in lesser films that doubt would be endlessly exploited, here Lulu only briefly tries once, and it’s completely ineffective, as Ace is able to instantly assuage Krypto’s insecurities and reassure him that his loyalty is proper and that Superman will always be there for him. He notes that dogs love unconditionally, which is a touch too precious, and not exactly accurate (they love us on the condition that we treat them right, remember that), but it’s still appreciated and well-intended. It’s a great capper to a wonderfully nuanced backstory about how he lost his family trying to protect them, but doesn’t begrudge the situation because everyone has different instincts when it comes to that very protection. Even Lulu, over-the-top evil as she is, bases her comical menace in her desire to be loved by her owner in Lex Luthor. It’s psychotic, but also kind of sweet.
If you’re going to do a movie about cartoon pets getting into hijinks, this is how you do it. By framing it within the DC universe, you get away with so much visual humor and slapstick without sacrificing believability thanks to the backdrop (AMC gave out free comic books last night to supplement). And yet, even with that much of a blank check for animated hilarity, the story and the characters are infinitely more relatable and grounded than they are in Illumination’s Toy Story for Dogs series. This movie is far from perfect, but I’ll take the Super-Pets any day of the week over Max and Snowball. Forget The Secret Life of Pets, I want The Secret IDENTITY of Pets!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What superpower would you give your dog? Can we get Keanu to play Batman for real? Let me know!