Dir: Jared Stern, Sam Levine. Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon, John Krasinski, Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, Thomas Middleditch, Ben Schwartz, Keanu Reeves. PG, 105 minutes.
A tissue-paper-thin barrier exists between heartfelt tribute and pure product placement. The smartest of today’s blockbusters have convinced audiences that a hardened commitment to handing over one’s cash – again and again – can actually be an act of love. No one’s really immune to it. We’re all, at some point or another, cheering on our own manipulation by a corporate marketing department. That said, I’d be surprised if anyone was duped by DC League of Super-Pets, which features Dwayne Johnson as the voice of Krypto, Superman’s beloved pooch from the comics, and ends with a sledgehammer-to-the-face reminder that Johnson’s next DC project, Black Adam, comes out in October.
If my cynicism here seems a little blunt, it’s not without reason – DC League of Super-Pets has the misfortune of existing in a world that’s already given us The Lego Batman Movie, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, and the Harley Quinn animated series, so it’s only right that audiences should expect a little more from it. Super-Pets tries to chase those same highs, only to smack right into the glass door of its own limited imagination.
We already have the framework for what a funny, self-referential animated spin on the superhero multiverse should look like. And it’s one, ironically, that Super-Pets’s own director, Jared Stern, and his co-writer, John Whittington, are partially responsible for – the pair were credited writers on The Lego Batman Movie. Super-Pets could very well consist of nothing more than the scraps of jokes they found discarded on the writing-room floor. Batman (Keanu Reeves) periodically reminds us that his parents are dead. Characters hit their heads on Wonder Woman’s (Jameela Jamil) invisible jet. The film is desperately craving an angle – one that certainly can’t be fulfilled by the fact all the pet ownership jokes have already been used up by the Secret Life of Pets series.
Krypto, who considers Superman (John Krasinski) to be his “ride or die”, is overcome with jealousy when it becomes clear his owner is about to propose to his girlfriend, Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde). He simply can’t bear the idea that he’s about to be squeezed out of his privileged spot on the sofa, but learns to set healthier relationship boundaries by teaming up with a set of rescue animals who have all been granted superpowers thanks to a rogue shard of orange kryptonite (the orange giveth, the green taketh away). Krypto, Ace (Kevin Hart) the boxer, PB (Vanessa Bayer) the pot-bellied pig, Merton (Natasha Lyonne) the turtle, and Chip (Diego Luna) the squirrel all team up to defeat a megalomaniac guinea pig (Kate McKinnon) who’s escaped the lab of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron).
While the film enthusiastically leans into its caricature-artist takes on classic heroes – hooray for a Wonder Woman with such killer biceps! – there’s not all that much of a distinctive aesthetic on display here. The nerdy visual gags, including a Dinah Lance (aka Black Canary) vinyl and a Catwoman billboard à la Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, feel few and far between. The pop cultural touchstones might as well have been stripped from a Google search of “what’s popular now” – both Paw Patrol and The Great British Bake Off’s “soggy bottoms” feature. And what plays for adult humour is simply having Lyonne’s old and cranky chelonian utter some bleeped-out cusswords.
Lyonne is funny, because Lyonne has never in her life not been funny. The same can be said for McKinnon. But while the calibre of star voices here is superb, it seems odd to centre the entire film around Johnson and Hart. So much of their chemistry in Jumanji or Central Intelligence was rooted in odd-couple physical comedy – a guy who’s always cracking jokes about his own short stature versus the closest we have to a living demi-god. That dynamic doesn’t really work between a boxer and a golden retriever.
Will DC League of Super-Pets convince audiences to start lining around the block for Black Adam? I doubt it. But it might convince people to go home and rent Teen Titans Go! To the Movies to remember how blissfully funny animated superhero stuff can be. Who knows, maybe that was the long game and we’ve simply been played once more.
‘DC League of Super-Pets’ is in cinemas from 29 July