Some movies tend to disappoint despite possessing a premise that, by all means, should come sealed with a guarantee of success. Others follow in their wake with surprisingly fresh diversions because their premise is so ridiculous that it somehow manages to work. DC League of Super-Pets (2022) not only falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum but is observable proof that execution is the deciding factor, as the efforts of those involved — including an impressively assembled voice cast — are as entertaining as they are occasionally hackneyed, even if they do quite a bit to elevate a concept that is, at best, second-rate in its targeting of younger audiences.
If nothing else, superhero fans have earned this bright change of pace and simple dose of earnestness considering the DC Extended Universe’s oddly grim tone, which is really starting to negatively compliment the convoluted storylines that are taking over the Marvel Cinematic Universe and have all but doomed the CW’s Arrowverse. It’s more than invigorating to watch a superhero film that is neither unnecessarily dark nor dependent upon years and years of fan investment. Just as he did as a screenwriter for the delightful Lego Batman Movie (2017), writer/director Jared Stern has declared independence from any pre-existing properties and given beloved characters a fresh slate. No need to do your homework here, especially when the heroes and villains are spelled out as clearly as they are.
The primary villain, in this case, is a megalomaniacal guinea pig named Lulu (Kate McKinnon), whose “proud” distinction as the test subject of one Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) was upended after being rescued by Krypto (Dwayne Johnson), the super-powered canine companion of Superman (John Krasinski) who joined him on his voyage to Earth in their youths. Blessed with the same intelligence and lack of hair as her former “colleague,” Lulu’s scheme to escape the adoption center she was jailed in and continue Lex’s dirty work not only gifts her with powers of her own, but also grants her abilities to four of the center’s other adoption hopefuls, who join Krypto in his quest to save Metropolis after the evil rodent takes the Justice League hostage.
Much like their biped counterparts, Krypto and Lulu are two sides of the same coin. Lulu’s unwavering devotion to the corrupt businessman who’s proven time and again to be a thorn in the Man of Steel’s side meets its match in the Super-Dog who finds his singular loyalty tested as Superman prepares to propose to reporter Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde). What the film lacks in tension surrounding the central conflict it makes up for in the endearing dynamic it creates between Superman and Krypto, who assume the alter-egos of Clark Kent and “Bark Kent,” respectively, to humorous effect. The two have an affinity for one another that is unshakeable and hard to resist, even if it appears downright strange to the rest of the Justice League, who are just Superman’s “work friends,” as Krypto will tell you. The voice acting is nothing special — hell, even Krasinski made a much better impression in his brief role as Lancelot in Shrek the Third (2007) — but the film’s decision to bring comics’ first superhero back to his light-hearted foundations on the big screen gives way to a series of heartfelt sequences between two characters whose personalities are as simple and sweet as that of a boy and his dog.
Less true to their origins on the page is the remainder of the League of Super-Pets, which may provide some explanation as to why they are so thinly conceived. Their leader, Ace (Kevin Hart), a Boxer whose comic book equivalent has a kindred relationship with Batman (Keanu Reeves), is fittingly provided the most depth of any of them after being blessed with invulnerability, which isn’t saying much when the beats that make up his retreaded backstory have been utilized to a more satisfying extent by better films, including those featuring the Caped Crusader. There’s not much filling the rest of the team out, as DC League of Super-Pets spends so much time lampooning each of the Justice League’s individual archetypes that it neglects to provide PB (Vanessa Bayer), a pot belly pig with the power to manipulate her size; Chip (Diego Luna), an electrokinetic squirrel; and Merton (Natasha Lyonne), a super-speedy turtle, with the same kind of attention.
Thankfully, what it does provide them is harmless enough to appeal to childlike sensibilities without the revolting allure of overtly childish humor that would otherwise turn away older viewers. In fact, parents and comic book fans alike will likely find something for themselves, whether it’s Merton’s occasional use of profanity (bleeped out, of course!) or the film’s endless, at-times excessive, supply of callbacks and superhero-related jokes. Stern and co-screenwriter John Whittington, another brain behind The Lego Batman Movie, have a clear passion for the source material and don’t hold back. From Aquaman (Jemaine Clement) eating fish food in his captive state to Reeves bringing all kinds of delightful self-deprecation to the Dark Knight, from the Justice League hotline asking callers to identify which “Earth” they are calling from to Ace wondering why he couldn’t have been gifted with a magic hammer instead, the humor is far from inspired, but it’s packaged into an amusing enough whole that it goes down easily.
The same can be said for the film’s visual palette, which feels more than a little behind the curve in an age when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) has set a considerable mark for the limits of 3D animation to beat. If the film disappoints in its display of action choreography, the writing at least allows for a steady pace that ensures that those flaws aren’t dealbreakers. Besides, with superhero properties getting darker and harder to follow by the day, it’s hard to resist a film that risks little and bursts off the screen in a bright fashion as a result. There’s no telling if the DC League of Super Pets will have any of the DC film catalog’s detractors crawling back for more, but it sure isn’t going to alienate anyone else.