‘DC League of Super-Pets’ Review: Why Shouldn’t a Superhero Film Be a Kiddie Cartoon? That’s What Most Superhero Films Are Anyway

DC League of Super-Pets” opens with a DC Films logo sequence — the full grand corporate prelude, with shuffling dark-toned images of Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. It’s a bit of a surprise to see this super-serious logo kick off an animated caper for kids, even if the film does have “DC” and “Super-Pets” in its title. But then, “DC League of Super-Pets,” though very much a comedy about a scruffy team of critter heroes (it’s based on the DC Comics characters the Legion of Super-Pets), is also a movie that makes room for the famed demigods of the DC universe; it’s a full-on superhero extravaganza. Watching it, what you realize — it’s something we all know but don’t think about too often — is that the gargantuan comic-book movie spectacles that our culture is fatally addicted to are all, in essence, cartoons.

I’m not talking about the stylized characterizations and storybook plots (though I might just as well be). I mean that the constant parade of visual miracles and astonishments — the pageantry of supernatural power — that’s the main lure of these movies is, of course, a pure product of CGI. It isn’t actual; it’s animated. (It’s as animated as an animated film.)

“DC League of Super-Pets” lays that reality bare, not just because it is an animated film but because it has a look-how-over-the-top-this-is brashness that perches everything on the edge of satire. The film seems to be saying: Why would a motley crew of super-pets — or, for that matter, the Justice League — be anything but light and cheeky and, at times, ridiculous? Who would play a megalomaniac villain straight? Why would you consider any of this to be anything but kids’ stuff? The movie, in its spirited and blithely conventional and likable way, knocks the stuffing out of superhero fantasy. Its joke is that a mangy crew of animals doing outlandish CGI-stunt magic tricks is essentially what every comic-book movie is.

The opening sequence replays the origin-story scene of the young Superman being placed in a spaceship by his father, Jor-El (voiced by Keith David), so he can escape his about-to-be-destroyed home planet of Krypton. Only in this case the kid’s best friend leaps into the capsule along with him — it’s his puppy, who on Earth grows up to be Krypto (Dwayne Johnson), his faithful canine companion, who possesses the same powers that Superman does. He’s a Dog of Steel who can fly and has X-ray vision. He is also, when he tries to hide his identity, a charming bumbler in horn-rims.

But there’s trouble in super-paradise. Superman (John Krasinski), a.k.a. Clark Kent, has become seriously involved with the TV reporter Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde) and is about to ask her to marry him. Which means that Krypto is going to be nudged out of the picture — or, at least, out of the central place he occupies in his master’s life. The movie gives full vent to this melancholy canine anxiety, to the point that “DC League of Super-Pets,” even when it becomes an agreeably overscaled adventure, often plays like “The Lady and the Tramp” directed by Michael Bay.

In this case, the villain is a hairless purple-eyed guinea pig named Lulu, voiced by Kate McKinnon as a silky-voiced scold who suggests a cross between Lena Dunham and Eva Perón. Lulu has been an associate of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), which is what gave her the taste for domination. The action turns on Kryptonite — but there are different varieties of it. The green kind (let’s call that Kryptonite Classic) is still on hand, and it robs Krypto of his powers after he consumes a shard of it that Lulu snuck into a square of cheese. She’s one of the animals stuck in a cage in the Tailhuggers Animal Shelter; she longs to break out in every way. To do so, she uses orange Kryptonite, which doesn’t work on people but lets animals acquire superpowers, which is what happens to her and her fellow denizens of the shelter. But unlike Lulu, they have plaintive insecurities and good hearts.

These quirky critters include Ace (Kevin Hart), a gruff-on-the-outside bulldog who is still nursing the inner wound from when his family tossed him out; PB (Vanessa Bayer), a pig who speaks with the emphatic overeagerness of a people-pleaser who also wants to be the hippest person in the room, and who acquires the ability to change her size at will; the hyper squirrel Chip (Diego Luna); and the ancient myopic turtle Merton, who receives the gift of hyper-speed, though it never speeds up her awesome blasé cynicism, voiced by Natasha Lyonne with a delectably unruffled outer-borough hostility that’s the definition of scene-stealing.

The newly formed Super-Pets have to spring into action because the Justice League, from Superman on down, have been captured and imprisoned by Lulu. Yet the human heroes still figure into the action, not to mention the comedy. Keanu Reeves is the voice of Batman, and listening to him you think: How could the world have existed for this long without Keanu Reeves having voiced Batman? His every line is a resounding declaration of something about the Caped Crusader that actually makes no sense (“Batman works alone. Except for Robin and Alfred”), and Reeves makes each one count. McKinnon is similarly inspired — her Lulu is a palpitating narcissist, all brain, who speaks in advanced sarcasm. She keeps the movie thrumming. Johnson strikes a perfect balance of valor and goofy loyalty, and Hart, as Ace, caresses each line with a gruffness skewered by compassion.

The plot is…a plot. Busy and frantic and diagrammed. But there are just enough wild-card moments along the way, like those involving a baby-voiced kitten who coughs up hairball grenades. “DC League of Super-Pets” ends with a giant-monster showdown that’s very standard, though it must be said that the animators give good beast. And Batman gets the sendoff he deserves, which is to get doggy-licked right out of his funk. That’s enough to leave him smiling, and the audience, too.