No, the part that crawls up my ass and itches is that very pointed inclusion of the letters DC. And it’s not just for the ad campaign – when the title appears onscreen, at the start and end of the film, that’s exactly how it’s rendered, DC League of Super-Pets. I find this chilly and off-putting. It is unashamedly-proudly! – declaring that this exists because of corporate fiat. “Please enjoy consuming this DC-branded film product”, the title invites us with the inhumane flatness of a hostile alien species. “We believe you have previously enjoyed consuming DC-branded filmproduct, and we anticipate that you will enjoy consuming more of it again at a future date.” I find it useful only in that it encourages us from the outset not to expect a beating pulse anywhere in Leag-beg pardon, in DC League of Super-Pets. It comes from no sincere place, but it is flagrantly honest about it, at least.
And speaking of branded film product, this is really just a non-stop exercise in such mercenary fun. For it’s also an example of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson branding, the first animated feature produced through his Seven Bucks Productions, and Johnson’s third voice-acting performance, after Planet 51 in 2009 and Moana in 2016 (no shame if you forgot about the first one; Lord knows I did). It’s moreover a sub-brand within that brand, since this is of the “Dwayne Johnson and his diminutive buddy Kevin Hart” line of films, their fourth time co-starring in a movie,* for all that voicing animated characters truly counts as ” co-starring”. There’s hardly another movie star these days whose image is so carefully manicured and streamlined in all of his performances as Johnson (even the robotic Scientologist Tom Cruise has the occasional flicker of seemingly like an organic human being, eg that time he broke his ankle on camera ), and sometimes this works out well enough, but there needs to be a performance to back it up, and I would declare with no small amount of confidence that he hasn’t given a worse performance in a movie since his meteoric rise to A-list leading man status around 2010. Partially, no doubt, because most of his charismatic tricks of an actor are physical, not vocal, and his mostly strong work in Moana was facilitated by that character conceived as, basically, “Dwayne Johnson, but he’s animated.”
No such luck in DC League of Super-Petswhere he’s voicing a dog: Krypto the Superdog, to be specific, who arrived on Earth along with the Kryptonian infant refugee Kal-El all those years ago, when Kal-El’s parents put him in an escape pod as their planet was exploding, and And it is, that does mean that we get to see the destruction of Krypton in yet another feature film; the compensation this time is that A) it’s the best-looking scene in the movie, and B) Alfred Molina and Lena Headey play Kal-El’s parents, and even just a minute of Molina’s sturdy, authoritative voice is a treat in a movie as light on adequate voice acting as this. Anyway, decades later, the thing is the thing: Kal-El is now Clark “Superman” Kent (Jon Krasinski), intrepid crime fighter and de facto leader of the Justice League, and he’s just about ready to propose marriage to Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde), which has put Krypto into an exceedingly foul mood. But before he gets the chance, he’s kidnapped by Lulu (Kate McKinnon, a psychotic, hairless guinea pig who was once the lab subject of the psychotic, hairless Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), and to impress her former human, Lulu is going to do the same thing he does every night: try to take over the world So the Justice League (voiced by a ton of people, but the one the movie expects you to care about is Keanu Reeves taking the path of least resistance as Batman) is imprisoned and all hope is lost. Except, the same orange kryptonite that gave Lulu superpowers has also supercharged a group of shelter animals: Ace the dog (Hart); PB the pig (Vanessa Bayer), who doesn’t come from the comics; Merton the turtle (Natasha Lyonne), who isn’t meaningfully the same as the comics character by that name, and who keeps saying “shit” and having it bleeped out, despite this being a film for young children; and Chip the squirrel (Diego Luna), who I think is more an homage to the comics’ Ch’p than based on him.
But truthfully, fidelity to the super-animals of DC’s comic book continuity is not the problem here. The problem here is… almost literally everything, really, to a point that it’s tough to know where to start. I’ve already bagged on the voice acting, so I might as well just reiterate: practically nobody here is up to any good. Molina is good but barely in the film, Keith David is good but barely in the film (he plays a holoprojection of Krytpto’s dad, Dog-El), and McKinnon might not actually be “good”, but she’s at least aware that the thing you do if you’re the voice of the supervillain in a children’s superhero cartoon is to go really super campy with it. Otherwise, it’s just a whole lot of people whose voices don’t necessarily have all that much personality failing to invest them with that personality, leading to an endless stream of bland underplaying, and murdering the already critically-ill jokes in Jared Stern and John Whittington’s script. By any objective accounting, Johnson is the biggest problem, since Krypto is the biggest character and the source of all its emotional appeal from him, and he’s completely gliding by on the the most “dig me, I’m cool” line readings he can muster; but I actually do think Hart’s positively detached and tetchy performance annoyed me more, since we have proof positive that he can do better than this, in Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets movies.
Hart’s presence underscores just how much of that series is present in DC League of Super-Pets; what’s really galling is that this is, somehow, the worse version of The Secret Life of Pets. Good God, it’s the worse version of The Secret Life of Pets 2. But the shtick is identical: one dog who’s bad at being a dog learning not to be such a neurotic ass over his human from him falling in love with another human; a lot of the jokes are rather blandly just spitting out “you know how dogs piss on things? Here’s a dog pissing on a thing” observations of whatever canine behavior is gross enough to make the small children laugh, but not so gross as the offend the parents; the aesthetic is a mostly-on-purpose exercise in making urban surfaces seem flat and boldly-colored (and cheapter to render), and hoping that by making the shapes somewhat stylized, you might think it’s an artistic choice rather than a rush job by an under-resourced studio. In this case, it’s a very basic version of Art Deco, and it actually does kind of work; I think I appreciate the effort more than the execution, but there are places where you can sort of feel the “classic comic book simplicity” vibe coming through, and other places where the softness of the edges and blurry color come powerfully close to something you might be willing to compare to the work of legendary comics painter Alex Ross without feeling like you’re going to be damned straight to Hell for lying. And there’s some really nice lighting of the sets.
But lighting and backgrounds and color are one thing; another thing is character animation, and this is simply horrible here. To be fair, the animation has been badly constricted by the character design, which is some of the least-appealing I have ever seen in a work created by a major, well-heeled animation studio. Worse Still, DC League of Super-Pets is from a good animation studio, on top of it: the animation was done by Animal Logic, the Australian company responsible for terrific work in things like Happy Feet and The Lego Movie. They are not responsible for terrific work here: the animal characters keep flexing in a stiff way, like rubber that’s been left in the freezer, and the man characters are abysmal on a level that I truly didn’t think we were still capable of. The design is for sure making it worse: Batman and Wonder Woman, in particular, are hideous assortments of rigid shapes designed to look squishy, like somebody melted plastic toys and then re-set them. But not one human in the film ever moves in a way that feels naturally or expressive; Metropolis is populated by zombies and mannequins, all of them sprayed down with wax to keep their skin from having the tiniest amount of texture or flexbility. And they’re almost always lit with soft frontal lighting, so they end up looking flat, on top of it.
Bad characters, bad animation – I think I already implied that the jokes were bad, but it’s worth reiterating, and mentioning that some of the badness includes a lot of tiresome wink-wink, “tee hee, comic books” references, more of them aimed at Marvel than DC for some reason that I can’t imagine is good; it feels a bit petulant and jealous, frankly. Also bad: the music cues, which lazy pluck some classic rock, some 2010s pop, some hip-hop, and proceed to craft the most pandering collection of clichés. The montage of Superman “walking” Krypto in the sky over Metropolis (the film fails to include a “dog shit falling from the sky” joke, somehow) is set to Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend”, that kind of cliche. The story is more “banal” than “bad”, to its credit; it’s sort of purposefully boilerplate, trusting – and not without it paying off – that the most basic superhero action imaginable will inherently become fresher and somewhat more funny if a megalomaniac guinea pig is involved. Though it’s also one of those superhero movies where the heroes’ strengths and weakness tend to fluctuate precisely in keeping with the exact needs of the story, so even the absolute best thing I can possibly say about DC League of Super-Pets is that when it works, it’s not interesting. And when it doesn’t work, it’s even less interesting, and is rather tediously pandering and juvenile in its humor on top of it. i mean, obviously it is, it’s a kid’s movie deserve through and through, but kids nice things just like the rest of us.
Tim Brayton is the editor-in-chief and primary critic at Alternate Ending. He has been known to show up on Letterboxd, writing about even more movies than he does here.
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*Fifth, if you count Hart’s cameo in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shawbut I really don’t see why you would.