DC League of Super-Pets

DC League of Super-Pets ★★★★

As a lover of animation in general, it's hard for me to think of any behind-the-scenes story in Western feature animation more sad than the recent rise and fall of Warner Animation Group. Conceived in the early 2010s as a manner of finally bringing Warner Bros.' animated feature films up to the consistent quality and iconography of their catalog of shorts and television shows, WAG's first release, The Lego Movie, was a massive hit both commercially and critically and with a number of compelling-sounding projects on the docket, it seemed like the studio was well on their way to being the WB answer to Pixar they were created to be. And then, things took a turn. While Lego Batman was another big hit, both Ninjago and the criminally under appreciated Lego Movie 2 underperformed at the box office; with the film rights to Lego ultimately going over to Universal. As for WAG's non-Lego films, both of their original IPs, Storks and Smallfoot, had minimal marketing and as a result, barely made an impact either critically or financially. And everything else they've done has felt like it's existed predominantly out of an executive mandate rather than the creator-driven work seen at studios like Disney Animation, Pixar, and even Sony. Even now, WAG has suffered massive layoffs in the wake of the WB/Discovery merger, had one of its major partner animation houses, Animal Logic, get bought out by Netflix, and is on its way to losing the WAG name itself; reverting back to Warner Feature Animation.

I say all this both because I can't think of any better area to lament the loss of a once-promising name in Western feature animation and to give context when I say that DC League of Super Pets is perhaps one of the bigger pleasant surprises of the year. Because at first glance, especially given the marketing, it looks like yet another one of those executive-mandate movies I mentioned earlier. A film made not because a specific writer or director had a great idea for a story; but because the higher-ups at Warner wanted their own Secret Life of Pets, WB was already working with Dwayne Johnson and his production company, Seven Bucks, on Black Adam, and Dwayne Johnson really seems to like Superman and his adjacent mythology on top of really liking Black Adam and what Dwayne Johnson wants, he gets.

But to my pleasant surprise, DC League of Super-Pets is largely not that. For one, it's a significantly better film than Secret Life of Pets was. Whereas that film was an often shallow attempt at plastering the buddy comedy/"What does X do when humans aren't around" combination of the first Toy Story as a through line for a series of played-out, often not even accurate, dog/pet jokes; Super-Pets is a genuine, honest-to-god superhero movie where the main characters happen to be pets and the film does actually have a lot of fun with animal behavior and dogs in particular. I don't have a pet myself, but my sister is a very dedicated dog mom and there's a lot of stuff they do in this movie that feels very accurate to stuff I've seen her dog do and stuff she's told me he does and it really got a laugh out of me. (Seriously, if you're a dog parent, go see this movie. You will love it.) And while the marketing may have made it look like a standard animated comedy with a sprinkling of action scenes; in reality, it's a legit superhero origin story for the Super-Pets team with tons of great action and genuine stakes both physically and emotionally.

As for the cast, I thought Dwayne Johnson did an excellent job as Krypto the Superdog. I feel like people tend to overlook this due to his mega-star status, but Johnson is a genuinely talented actor, up to and including voice work (Want further evidence? Go rewatch Moana). He brings a confident naïveté to the character that really works both emotionally and comedically. I tend to be very "eh" on Kevin Hart, but he gives Ace the Bat-Hound a surprising amount of grounded authenticity, especially for a movie like this. Vanessa Bayer is really charming as fangirl pig PB, Kate McKinnon is having an absolute blast as the villain Lulu, Marc Maron's Lex Luthor is a lot of fun, Natasha Lyone probably got the most laughs out of me in the whole movie as Merton, Diego Luna's Chip is probably the most I've been invested in Diego Luna in anything (Sorry, Cassian Andor stans. All six of you), and Thomas Middleditch, Ben Schwartz, and Keith David get some small but memorable surprise roles that I won't go into here.

But what about the Justice League, you ask? Well, John Krasinski's dog dad take on Superman is fantastic and I kind of hope they lean into some of that whenever they do the character in live-action again; but he's the only one that I feel the film properly utilizes. I know it's a Super-Pets movie and not a Justice League movie but having this cast with these genuinely really great character designs (Cyborg's admittedly weird half afro not withstanding), and then not really doing anything with them feels like kind of a waste. Casting God's Perfect Human Keanu Reeves as Batman is an inspired choice, but two of his best bits were already in the trailer and said bits comprise roughly half of his total screen time. Jemaine Clement as Aquaman, The Good Place's Jameela Jamil as Wonder Woman, and freaking Daveed Diggs from Hamilton as Cyborg all fall into this category, but none of them get to do much of anything for most of the film. And while I'm not familiar with their other work, John Early as The Flash and Dascha Palanco as Green Lantern were really cool........ in what very few scenes they were in. Please Warner Bros., do not let these castings and these designs go to waste. Do a sequel that's more of a direct Justice League/Super-Pets team-up. Hell, just do a dedicated CGI Justice League movie with these versions of the characters. It's not like you're gonna make another live-action one anytime soon!

As for other criticisms, while I enjoy how deliberately cartoony the character design and animation in general is, it often looks cheaper than it probably is. It makes me wonder how much of the budget was allocated to paying the A-list celebrity cast compared to the animation itself (Please let more career voice actors be leads in animated movies. I'm begging you, Hollywood.) Moreover, the emotional arcs for the characters other than Krypto felt very rushed and Ace's backstory, while containing some genuine emotion, feels like the film is trying to force a When She Loved Me moment and you can't force that kind of thing, I'm sorry. And a couple of the jokes either didn't really land for me, namely that one piss joke from the trailer, or didn't feel like they were taken far enough to be as effective as they could've been. For instance, there's a recurring bit where Ace promises the other shelter pets he's going to take them to "The Farm Upstate" and while it is funny, it never goes to the place yoo'd think they would go with it and that feels like a missed opportunity.

Regardless, I had a lot of fun with DC League of Super-Pets, more so than I was expecting. The characters are very charming, the action is great, the stakes feel genuine, and it is often very laugh-out-loud funny in ways I did not expect it to be. It's definitely not a perfect movie and in terms of family films, I wouldn't say it's close to the level of Turning Red, Lightyear, or even Thor:Love and Thunder; but it is an enjoyable watch nonetheless and if you're a parent and your options for taking the kids to the movies are this or Minions again, this is definitely the better choice. I don't know what the chances are of WAG/Seven Bucks doing another one of these given....... well, everything, but I'd certainly watch a sequel. Fly on over to the theater and check it out for yourself.

P.S, Stay through all of the credits. The final post-credits gag is legitimately one of the funniest things I've seen all year.

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