For every major hard-hitting animation studio that exists like Pixar or the critically beloved Studio Ghibli and Laika, there are other animation groups that don’t get nearly the same recognition. Illumination is responsible for the gargantuan Despicable Me and Minions films, with their other franchises Sing and The Secret Life of Pets — a notable inspiration for this film — proving to be massive box office darlings, even if they lack the critical support. Sony Pictures Animation, the folks behind the Hotel Transylvania franchise and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, didn’t get their credit until Into the Spider-Verse came and blew the collective minds of audiences, winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Blue Sky, the folks behind the Ice Age films, has since been discontinued, thanks to the Disney conglomerate swallowing up its acquired Fox assets. Walt Disney Animation, has been responsible for some of the biggest animated hits of all time such as Frozen 1 & 2 and Coco, yet they still tend to live in the shadow of their sibling studio, Pixar, despite the latter’s recent input not pulling in quite the same level of quality as they’re used to.
So where does that leave Warner Animation Group? The much-beloved The Lego Movie was a big hit that was subsequently snubbed for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination. That film was followed up by The Lego Batman Movie, but also the less successful Lego Ninjago Movie and The Lego Movie 2. The studio has existed in its own little corner, churning out modest success like Smallfoot and the underappreciated Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, but hasn’t received the same level of acclaim as many other animation houses. While the studio’s latest endeavor, utilizing the DC brand for their own attempt at a Secret Life of Pets or Toy Story, isn’t likely to change the general outlook on the studio, but it is a better-than-anticipated adventure that gives DC a much-needed cuddly romp through the universe inhabited by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and friends.
Krypto (Dwayne Johnson) is the lifelong furry counterpart to Superman (John Krasinski). Opening with the destruction of Krypton, Supes and Krypto escape sharing the same pod where the story we know of Superman comes to fruition, but with the Man of Steel fighting alongside his trusty four-legged friend. Superman is ready to propose to Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde) and Krypto fears he will no longer get the same amount of love and affection. Fearing Krypto will be lonely, Superman stops at a local animal shelter to bring home a new sibling to Krypto. However, things go awry and Superman, alongside the other members of the Justice League are kidnapped. Now, Krypto must enlist the help of a rag-tag group of shelter animals with newfound super powers– Ace, a Hound dog (Kevin Hart), PB, a Wonder Woman-obsessed Pig (Vanessa Bayer), Merton, an elderly, near-sighted Turtle (Natasha Lyonne) and Chip, a hyperactive squirrel (Diego Luna) — to save the Justice League from the clutches of Lex Luthor’s former Guinea pig, Lulu (a wonderfully madcap Kate McKinnon).
Director Jared Stern (Happy Anniversary) and co-director Sam J. Levine (Home on the Range) don’t aim for a gag-a-minute laugh fest ala Minions: The Rise of Gru, but instead, aiming for a more traditional narrative, one that, indeed, takes a great deal from The Secret Life of Pets, which itself took a great deal from the first Toy Story. Much of the first act is spent laying the typical ground work, pitting the uptight, insecure Krypto against the more carefree, easygoing Ace. It isn’t until the film branches away from its pedestrian setup where Super-Pets begins to truly take flight. While there’s not nearly the amount of self-referential humor or satire found in other Warner Animation film, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, whose quippy, anarchist tone made for a joyous family treat, albeit a severely underseen one, DC League of Super-Pets has more than its fair share of belly laughs. You’ll have to get past the number of easy gags that are of the low-hanging fruit variety — one of Batman’s first lines is “I miss my parents” and the amount of dog puns crammed into the first 30 minutes of this gets out of hand, fast.
Most of the humor is aimed directly at its target audience of young children, but some gags work for older viewers. The shelter animals dream of being adopted and going to a rumored farm, one they call an “animal farm” where they’re assured nothing unfortunate can happen at any place called animal farm. The filmmakers implement sparring uses of different animation styles when exploring characters backstories, giving some much-needed variety in its visual presentation. A major asset to Super-Pets is its stacked voice cast. While lead by Kevin Hart — always reliable when it comes to voiceover work — and Dwayne Johnson — giving the least inspired vocal performance of the film — its the supporting cast that elevates much of the material. Kate McKinnon is wonderfully kooky as the films villainous Guinea pig. Natasha Lyonne gives some particularly inspired work as the old, nearly blind turtle. Lyonne turns little moments such as the turtle discovering her newfound speed powers into something utterly hysterical. Keanu Reeves makes a brief, but welcoming turn as Batman. Marc Maron proves to be a memorable Lex Luthor and Vanessa Bayer’s PB character is infused with heart and equal amounts of laughs. Other notable voices include Diego Luna, Ben Schwartz, Thomas Middleditch, Daveed Diggs, Lena Headey, Keith David and Jermaine Clement.
When Super-Pets makes its inevitable turn in attempting to pluck at the heartstrings, it isn’t entirely successfully — one sequence directly rips off the emotional flashback of Toy Story 2 with waning results — but the writing does manage to find some emotional truths between its characters. Like the pets themselves, there’s something irresistible and charming about the film. The narrative isn’t going to throw any curveballs at its audience and the climax plays out as expected, but what could have felt like a cynical cash grab, instead feels heartwarming.
DC League of Super-Pets is largely a winning combination of laughs and family fun. It’s a warm-hearted and breezy romp that uses its DC backdrop to tell a straightforward, but charming adventure. If other DC blockbusters are too bombastic or gritty for younger viewers, this serves as a good-natured waypoint into the world of heroes for young viewers.