Certain summer films can represent a microcosm of cultural phenomena, often for better or worse, wide-reaching, niche, focused, or inconsistent. With all its hype, and what its marketing tried to promise, the bullseye is only grazed and not eclipsed for Warner Animation’s next case study. One tripling as a new inclusion in DC Comics’ lineage, and a benchmark for their parent company’s box office portfolio in its post-merger era. I could sense the efforts made by their brain trust for the youth-skewing DC League of Super-Pets, a tale leaning on chaotic Saturday morning cartoon parody territory. While also stopping short of going that extra mile to avoid that litany of an unfair comparison.
This spin on familiar characters and themes of adversity to change lands dead center between a close facsimile to The Secret Life of Pets and a far cleverer Robot Chicken special. The result comes off clever, albeit very tired and sluggish. Not lazy, though stretched very thin by its sense of kid-friendly hilarity and muted visual strengths. It all revolves around a one-off variation of Metropolis, a big city persistently plagued by elaborate crime. Patrolling the streets, as usual, is Clark Kent aka Superman (John Krasinski), aided by canine cohort Krypto (Dwayne Johnson). The pair had been inseparable, going back to their escape from Krypton at an early age. Years pass and their dynamic starts to change a bit. Clark’s looking to propose to Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde), and he feels Krypto needs more than one friend, thus causing a small rift.
From there, it evolves into a major tear when a hyper-intelligent guinea pig named Lulu (Kate McKinnon) escapes from an adoption center, leaving her neighbors in the lurch. She aspires for world domination, having once done time in a testing lab owned by Lex Luthor (Marc Maron). Her experimentation finds her at an insane advantage when building a guinea pig army, kidnapping Clark, luring in his fellow Justice Leaguers, and de-powering Krypto into a common hound. One who hesitantly joins that same pack of strays who, though Lulu’s indirect recklessness, suddenly possess a unique set of powers. There’s red squirrel Chip (Diego Luna), possessing sharp fingers with electrokinesis. Potbellied pig PB (Vanessa Bayer), an expert in size difference. And red-eared slider terrapin Merton (Natasha Lyonne), who’s as crass as she is fast. Pair with Ace’s invulnerability, and the pieces are at least there for a candid team-up.
That might be the double-edged sword in director/co-writer Jared Stern’s (The Lego Batman Movie) toolkit. A large cast of characters, whose voices are on point, but who half contribute little to the story and dilute the focus. Seeing the likes of Aquaman (Jemaine Clement), Wonder Woman (Jameela Jamil), The Flash (John Early), Cyborg (Daveed Diggs), and Batman (a nondescript Keanu Reeves) among others should’ve made for an immediate home run. Their presence still fared better than anything Zack Snyder could’ve tried with that stable of heroes. And yet it was so minimal, irrelevant to the overall story, whenever we skew away to see them get Krypto’s goat, it diminishes the doggo’s character arc. And that of his new second-in-command Ace (Kevin Hart), a Boxer with the semblance of a bad boy streak, masking a misunderstood past (sound familiar?).
Not that such a hefty wobble could derail Johnson’s commanding, empathic portrayal of an overconfident Labrador. His invocation of depth plays well for the role, despite it not being his finest animated hour. His camaraderie with Hart remains focal, six years after their previous partnership in the spy comedy Central Intelligence. Their energy is no less infectious toward each other, and to their peers. Bayer and Lyonne are never short of surprises, often landing the sharpest jokes. When it’s not them, or Hart with his acerbic wit, the energy falls with McKinnon. The recent SNL departure who flexes her comedic range, going full throated, outlandish, even ironic with Lulu’s one-note motives. And sharing a brain cell with her version of Carole Baskin. Vastly different from Maron’s Luthor, whose portrayal feels incredibly out of place, overly similar to his superior role in The Bad Guys, and not in a flattering manner.
And that might be the least of Stern’s headaches, sharing the work with co-writer John Whittington and co-director Sam Levine. Every element in play is a puzzle piece being forced to fit together, often with glue or scissors. It’s a patchwork starved for an organic weave, mediating between a compelling dog story, and a family-friendly screwball parody with an Animaniacs attitude. What can occur naturally versus what’s shoehorned in, is nowhere near a fair fight.
Those JLA characters? Beyond Supes and Batman, they have no business with this film, with Krasinski and Reeves unable to leap beyond blatant stunt casting. Krypto’s identity crisis, and his burgeoning friendship with Ace? I wish we had more of that, but that gets lost in the ether. So too do the varying sidekick dynamics, and a comic-reminiscent design palette uncertain of its own timeline. The focus should’ve been solely on the latter, as opposed to this new squad stuck with cleaning up a human-oriented mess. Not that the film’s core audience will notice, they’ll find much to dig into. Stern’s humor template is robust, it saves the moment. It still can’t escape first gear, skewing toward the childish; extended bathroom humor at the low end, Lyonne dropping bleeped f-bombs at the high end.
The venture is not perfect, nor is it spectacular. By the end, whether it was the story, or the theater’s busted AC (we were viewing this amid a significant heatwave), I felt very tuckered out. So many crumbs to Stern’s concoction struggle, not outright fail, to click. There were points where I enjoyed DC League of Super-Pets, its eye for an off-the-cuff, self-aware spinoff easy to distinguish. What was just as easy, its game of excessive familiarity, made it all so stifled. Snuffed of its potential by taking the easier way out and overstaying its welcome with a drawn-out finale. Its goal to entertain everyone will surely be met, most with those youngsters just learning about comic book lore. At the very least, this counts as an enjoyable steppingstone toward heavier material. For someone who’s seen it all before, however this is an incomplete adventure where less could’ve been more. (C; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
DC League of Super-Pets opens in theaters July 29, with a warning to stay through the credits; rated PG for action, mild violence, language, and rude humor; 106 minutes.