Animal sidekicks in superhero stories are mostly meant to provide a bit of comic relief and an opportunity to sell more toys. At best, they might get a plot line where they’re ignored and underestimated by a villain, right up until they save the human heroes from their latest predicament. Warner Bros.’ new animated theatrical feature DC League of Super-Pets embraces those tropes while putting an entirely new spin on them: a plot driven by an evil animal sidekick who wants to salvage a supervillain’s thwarted plan. That clever twist on a silly concept drives a surprisingly sweet and funny movie that’s absolutely packed with rapid-fire jokes designed to appeal equally to pet-lovers and DC Comics diehards.
Kate McKinnon disappears into the role of Lulu, a literal guinea pig for Lex Luthor’s fiendish experiments at his company Lexcorp, which caused her to lose all her fur and seemingly imbued her with super-intelligence. Rescued from captivity and dropped off at an animal adoption center by Krypto (Dwayne Johnson), a Kryptonian dog with the same powers of his best friend, Superman (John Krasinski), Lulu seeks to to continue the plot Luthor (Marc Maron) was working on to gain superpowers. Her shockingly successful scheme has the side effect of also giving powers to a group of hard-luck cases at the shelter, four animals who join Krypto to save Metropolis.
Lulu is a hybrid between Animaniacs’ megalomaniacal mouse The Brain and Luthor, who she views as her mentor and colleague. (They even share the same affliction: baldness due to an experiment gone wrong.) Her misplaced affection makes her the perfect enemy for Krypto, who’s questioning his own devotion to Superman as the hero starts spending more time with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde). Krypto has been part of the Superman canon since the 1950s, and DC League of Super-Pets provides a particularly sweet new version of his origin story, depicting him as a family puppy so desperate to protect baby Kal-El that he leaps into the infant’s escape rocket and licks away his tears as they fly to Earth together.
Dwayne Johnson brings the same charm and earnestness to the role that has made him a staple in family films. As Superman, Krasinski matches that attitude; this take on the Big Blue Boy Scout only wants what’s best for everyone. When he discovers that Krypto has assembled an animal team to rescue him, Superman’s reaction isn’t relief for himself, but joy that his dog finally made some friends. He explains that to the rest of the Justice League with such cutesy enthusiasm that it makes them all cringe. After the brooding, distant versions of the character in Superman Returns and the DCEU films, it’s refreshing to see such a lighthearted version of the character on the big screen.
His optimism comes from the fact that while he may be the Last Son of Krypton, in this version of his story, he’s never alone. As Kal-El’s parents note when Krypto squirms his way into the rocket, “Our boy will need a friend.” But while Superman has found love with Lois and companionship in the Justice League (who Krypto dismissively calls “work friends at best”), Krypto has a dog’s-eye view obsession with his owner as the only meaningful person in the world. Krypto may try to fit in with other dogs — which he hilariously does by putting on a pair of glasses and assuming his secret identity, “Bark Kent” — but he doesn’t find a lot to talk about when most of their adventures consist of eating their own vomit and biting the FedEx guy. His loyal devotion to Superman comes with jealousy and resentment whenever his super-owner cares for anyone else.
Accepting change and embracing the power of friendship are hardly novel themes for a children’s movie, but director and co-writer Jared Stern presents them with the genuine sweetness of a Toy Story film, complete with charming musical montages like Krypto and Superman repeatedly saving the day set to Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” The theme of having faith in yourself is executed more clumsily, as the newly minted Super-Pets each get their own half-baked arc.
Their de facto leader, Ace (Kevin Hart), who has a tragic backstory perfectly matched to Batman (Keanu Reeves), takes on the Dark Knight’s standard role as foil to Superman; he’s a more jaded, more worldly wise counterpart to Krypto’s boundless enthusiasm. Ace the Bat-Hound’s comic debut happened at the same time of Krypto’s, but Stern and co-writer John Whittington are largely charting their own course for the rest of the animal crew, which may be why they’re so much less resonant.
The neurotic squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) is at least innocuous. Loosely based on the short-lived Golden Age DC character The Terrific Whatzit, the nearly blind tortoise Merton is distractingly voiced by Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne playing the same character she always does, but with her expletives bleeped out. Even worse is PB (Vanessa Bayer), an insecure pot-bellied pig with a grating voice and a Wonder Woman obsession. (In one of the film’s deeper DC cuts, the character was inspired by Wonder Pig, from a one-off episode of Justice League Unlimited.)
The empowering hero moments the writers cram in for each of these minor characters largely fall flat. On the other hand, Super-Pets’ creators successfully save time by breaking down the rest of the Justice League into comic archetypes, like Aquaman (Jemaine Clement), who enthusiastically gobbles up fish food when held captive in a tank, and Cyborg (Daveed Diggs), who’s a walking joke about the shortcomings of technology. Stern and Whittington previously worked together as writers on The Lego Batman Movie, so unsurprisingly, they bring the same level of tough love to Reeves’ beautifully melodramatic Batman.
As with The Lego Batman Movie, the best part of DC League of Super-Pets is the writers’ intimate knowledge of and love for the source material, which they use to keep the movie moving with clever gags and even more brilliant callbacks. A highlight is an inexplicable holographic recording of Krypto’s father, Dog-El, dispensing important counsel like “Don’t eat chocolate.” There are a lot more gags for in-the-know comics fans, like a Justice League hotline asking callers to press buttons based on whether they’re trying to contact Earth-1 or Earth-2, and a Big Belly Burger in downtown Metropolis that gets wrecked in the fighting.
Leaning into the superhero genre also allows DC League of Super-Pets to avoid the gross-out humor that too often drives children’s movies. Stern plays with those expectations via Lulu’s kitten lieutenant Whiskers, who’s been transformed into a living arsenal capable of generating weapons from her body. During her big fight with the Super-Pets, she starts hacking up a hairball, but winds up spitting out a grenade, which she gleefully chucks at her adversaries. This is definitely a kids’ movie made for adults, with dark jokes like TV coverage of Luthor’s arrest featuring the astonished caption “Wealthy person actually goes to jail.”
DC League of Super-Pets is also visually stunning, delivering gorgeous scenes from the surprisingly dramatic destruction of Krypton to the skyscrapers of Metropolis. The fight scenes are dynamic and well choreographed, particularly the Justice League’s initial takedown of a version of power-armor-wearing Luthor where the stakes of the conflict keep changing.
The popularity of superhero films with teens and adults has pushed the genre to take on darker and more mature themes. It’s refreshing to see the joy that can be brought back to comic book stories when they’re just dealing with simpler stuff and can lean into earnest heroes and maniacal villains. DC League of Super-Pets isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a perfect way for DC Comics fans to introduce their kids to their favorite characters and their adorable and surprisingly competent sidekicks.
DC League of Super-Pets opens in theaters on July 29.