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The comedic DNA is strong in the latest outing from “The Lego Batman” co-writer Jared Stern, who brings his talents for writing acutely sardonic and self-aware scripts to his sophomore directorial effort, “DC League of Super-Pets.” While this new release confirms that DC will stop at nothing to keep its superhero franchise going — stretching their source material so thin that they’re not even making movies about superheroes, but their pets — the studio was at least wise enough to tap Stern for the task, who
Based loosely on the characters Krypto the Superdog and Ace the Bat-Hound, who can been spotted in various iterations of Superman and Batman comics and series as early as 1955, “Super-Pets” imagines what would happen if a group of neglected shelter animals were suddenly imbued with super strengths and abilities and tasked with saving the world. But before all that, we start simply with Krypto (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and Superman (voiced by John Krasinski), who live a charmed life together in a Metropolis penthouse.
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It’s easy to imagine why Superman picks his particular canine counterpart: Krypto, the loyal, clean-cut (even broad-chested) Labrador Retriever is the perfect match for the Man of Steel. In “DC League of Super-Pets,” the two have an unshakable bond, built on saving Metropolis from danger (and watching “The Great British Bake Off” to unwind).
The two have been best friends since Krypto snuck into baby Kal-El’s pod right before his parents shipped him off to Earth to escape the imminent destruction of Krypton. Their relationship is tested when Superman decides to propose to Lois Lane (voiced by Olivia Wilde), whom Krypto worries will replace him as a sidekick. Krypto’s palpable jealousy prompts Supes to find a friend for his pup at the local shelter, where we meet the cynical, street-smart Ace (voiced by Kevin Hart), along with his fellow sheltermates PB the pig (voiced by Vanessa Bayer), Chip the squirrel (voiced by Diego Luna), and Merton the turtle (voiced by Natasha Lyonne).
While the film is clearly marketed as another winning match-up between Hollywood’s “dynamic duo” Johnson and Hart, the two serve more as straight men for their castmates’ more amusing roles. Bayer and Lyonne’s nuanced voice-work particularly stands out, with Bayer as a sugary-sweet pot-bellied pig (and Wonder Woman stan), and Lyonne brilliantly embodying an aging turtle who sounds like your ornery Jewish grandpa and “can’t see shit.” Ace, too has his moments, at one point asking if the Hall of Justice, an ornate art-deco building inspired by the utopian architecture of Hugh Ferriss is just a “fancy DMV.”
As with many superhero movies, the villains are the best part of “Super-Pets.” It’s the shelter’s hairless Guinea pig, Lulu (voiced by Kate McKinnon), who emerges as the true star of the film, becoming both Superman and Krypto’s biggest threat. With Lex Luther imprisoned on “Strikers Island” after his evil plan goes awry in the film’s first 30 minutes, Lulu devises her own scheme to take away the powers of the entire Justice League.
McKinnon was seemingly inspired by the distinctive speaking voices of actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, with their dramatic flair and mid-Atlantic accents, and her Lulu is endlessly watchable, her verbose soliloquies emphasizing her character’s desire to be loved by Lex, who once kept her captive in his testing lab (hence the hair loss). Harnessing the power of orange kryptonite, Lulu renders Krypto and Superman powerless, along with Wonder Woman (voiced by Jameela Jamil), Aquaman (voiced by Jemaine Clement), The Flash (voiced by John Early), Green Lantern (voiced by Dascha Polanco), Cyborg (voiced by Daveed Diggs), and Batman (voiced by Keanu Reeves).
In the process, however, she inadvertently ends up giving superpowers to her sheltermates, who are tasked with saving the day when Metropolis’s usual heroes are suddenly out of commission.
“Super-Pets” does well to give over a fair amount of its runtime to plot and dialogue, as opposed to the usual string of infinite action sequences. The film’s violent fight scenes pack quite the punch, however, and feel rather dark for a PG movie. “Time for the death of Superman,” Lulu says menacingly, before zapping him with kryptonite. The pets, specifically Krypto and Ace, are even more beaten-up and battered by the end of the film, and at one point after losing his powers, Krypto is hit head-on by a truck and knocked into an alleyway filled with metal trash cans. If this scene wasn’t upsetting enough, the next we see him he’s hobbling into a park, bloodied and bruised, with an enormous black eye.
These moments are so affecting in part due to the incredibly life-like CGI animation, led by David Burgess of Animal Logic. The team had to learn quite literally how to “squash and stretch” the animals, which means, as Burgess explained in the film’s press notes, “to have that organic, fleshy feel.” Granted, a good fight scene (or seven) is a must for any superhero movie, but presenting such hyper-realistic animals being punched and thrown to the ground as entertainment feels extreme, at least in a kids’ movie.
Thankfully, the rest of Stern and co-writer John Whittington’s clever script is engaging enough for children to enjoy, and even funny enough for adults to emit the occasional chuckle. “Rich Person Actually Goes to Jail,” a witty caption on the local news reads as Lex Luther is carted away to prison, one of several jokes made at the expense of billionaires. There’s also a fair amount of pathos, including Ace’s gut-wrenching backstory of being given up by his owners (which makes him an ideal match for another orphaned caped crusader, as we witness later in the film).
“Super-Pets” ends up being about the unconditional love between pets and their human counterparts. Inspired by the impressive energy of his rag-tag super-gang, Krypto learns to leave his jealousy at the doggy-door and do all he can to save Superman and the rest of the Justice League. The classic adage that dogs save their owners’ lives, not the other way around, has never been more true.
Warner Bros. will release “DC League of Super-Pets” in theaters on Friday, July 29.
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