If you’re the kind of superhero enthusiast who would like to ask, “Why so serious?” to the gloomy fanboys who live by Joker memes and other grim-and-gritty signifiers, “DC’s League of Super-Pets” is a goofy, colorful throwback to those comic books of the 1950s and ’60s that allowed no costumed avenger to go un-sidekick-ed.
While not as anarchic or outrageously hilarious as “Teen Titans GO! to the Movies,” this latest all-ages animated adventure from DC Comics and Warner Bros. nonetheless has — and offers — lots of fun with the four-legged counterparts of a Justice League that’s more “Super Friends” than Snyder Cut.
We open on the final moments of the planet Krypton, where puppy Krypto (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) hops into baby Kal-El’s spacecraft to join him on his sojourn to Earth. Decades later, Krypto is a devoted ally to Superman (John Krasinski), aiding him against villains like billionaire megalomaniac Lex Luthor (Marc Maron). When Krypto starts resenting the time and attention his master is devoting to reporter Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde), Superman looks into getting another dog so that Krypto can have a friend.
The shelter they visit features a motley crew of animals, including Ace (Kevin Hart), a dog obsessed with escaping and taking his fellow detainees to a magical place known as “a farm upstate”; eternally optimistic pig (and Wonder Woman fan) PB (Melissa Bayer); kittish squirrel Chip (Diego Luna); and geriatric, nearsighted turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne).
Also occupying a cage at the shelter is hairless guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon), who was unwillingly liberated from a LexCorp lab but continues to think of herself as a “colleague” of the supervillain. When Luthor attempts to drag down a meteor made of Orange Kryptonite, which he thinks will give him super-powers, Lulu uses a homemade ray to grab a fragment for herself. What Luthor doesn’t realize is that Orange Kryptonite grants powers, all right, but only to animals.
A newly telekinetic Lulu, with the help of some other transformed guinea pigs, captures the Justice League and even tricks Krypto into eating a shard of Green Kryptonite, stripping him of his powers. (You can’t blame him; she hid it in cheese.) To save Superman and his teammates, Krypto must now rely upon the super-powered, Orange K–exposed shelter animals: Ace is now invulnerable, PB can shrink to teacup size or expand to state-fair blue-ribbon-winner, Chip can shoot lightning bolts, and Merton has super-speed. Along the way, Superman’s best friend will learn about dog things from Ace, from using his nose to learning how to let go when your pal falls in love.
It’s a tricky balance to concoct a plot with stakes and tension while never taking any of it all that seriously, but it’s a feat managed by director Jared Stern (“The LEGO Batman Movie”) and co-writer John Whittington (“Sonic the Hedgehog 2”). Granted, it might also help that the film’s executive producers include such veteran tone-jugglers as Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You Philip Morris”) and Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets”); either way, “DC’s League of Super-Pets” knows how to be simultaneously involving and self-mocking.
The screenplay is also skilled at pitching jokes both to kids (there’s a “Paw Patrol” gag that will make four-year-olds everywhere think, “I get that reference!”) and to adults (Winona Bradshaw voices the adorable but homicidal kitty Whiskers, who borrows catchphrases from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Warriors” as she corners her prey).
The art department and production designers are on the same page with the version of the DC Universe being presented here. Of the multiple Earths in the company’s narrative space, this is the one where Metropolis is a combination of mid-century skyscrapers and futuristic towers, where Luthor wears a bright green suit of science armor while shooting big purple beams into the sky. It’s an aesthetic that carries through the entire film, and it matches the breezy tone of the jokes and the vocal performances. (Also occupying the space between the epic and the ridiculous is the score by Steve Jablonsky, “Red Notice.”)
Like many films aimed at a younger audience, this one gets a little bogged down as it tries to get serious. Ace gets a flashback that clearly aims for the poignancy of the “When She Loved Me” sequence in “Toy Story 2,” but it never nails a Pixar-level assault on the tear ducts. To its credit, rather than pander to the easy laughs of talking to kids about what dogs do when they get taken for walks, such activities are suggested, thankfully, more often than depicted.
In true superhero-movie fashion, the film offers a few buttons during the closing credits – one sets up a sequel, the other indulges the star – but again, nothing that happens in “DC’s League of Super-Pets” feels like it particularly matters, or that it’s trying to build out several years’ worth of franchise follow-ups, and that’s almost exhilaratingly liberating in the current climate.
“DC’s League of Super-Pets” opens in US theaters July 29.