Give credit to director Jared Stern: he seems to know not only how to make inspired casting choices, but also when to sit back and open the floor to improvise. Basically, he lets funny people be funny. Stern and his co-writer John Whittington, who were part of the writing team on “The Lego Batman Movie,” bring some of that 2017 film’s witty irreverence to the DC universe—an antidote to Zack Snyder’s exhausting greatness. live-action take on the same characters.
Here, Superman (John Krasinski) thwarts bad guys with the help of his power-up pup, Krypto, a Labrador-like critter from Krypton with laser vision, the ability to fly, and an alter ego named – wait for it – Bark Kent. They are mostly a tag team operation while protecting Metropolis (an intriguing amalgam of several American cities), though they do occasionally get backup from a wonderfully droll Batman (Keanu Reeves) and the rest of the Justice League. But when a vile hairless guinea pig named Lulu (McKinnon, with a ball) kidnaps the members of the League in hopes of pleasing Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) – her former owner and Superman’s nemesis – it’s up to Krypto and a careless group of animal allies, newly endowed with superpowers, to save them.
The leader of this platoon is the funny Ace, endowed with invincibility but cursed with a tear-jerking past. Bayer voices PB, a merry pot-bellied pig and superhero fangirl who can grow or shrink. Luna is miraculously deranged as Chip, a neurotic squirrel with the ability to control electricity. But Lyonne steals the show as Merton, playing the lightning-fast tortoise as a lascivious old lady who hasn’t been given the memo that there’s no curse in a kid’s movie. (The sores have been paged, for the record.)
When “Super-Pets” isn’t delivering animalistic antics or enjoying a drawn-out riff on “The Great British Bake Off,” it slyly mocks the greater absurdity of the superhero genre. Jokes about Batman’s brooding, Superman’s not-so-secret identity, and the impracticality of the invisible jet flown by Wonder Woman (Jameela Jamil) aren’t exactly original, but they still have fun. The ways Lulu captures the Justice League — dropping Aquaman (Jemaine Clement) in an aquarium, spinning the Flash (John Early) in a hamster wheel, putting Cyborg (Daveed Diggs) in airplane mode — are more inspired. Ben Schwartz and Thomas Middleditch also rejoice as inseparable guinea pigs with incompatible powers.
It’s a shame that “Super-Pets,” unlike “Lego Batman,” isn’t committed to the freak frenzy. There are moments of sporadic distinction, but the conveyor belt animation, unimaginative needle drops, and predictable plot make it feel slightly more pedestrian. Sometimes it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Super-Pets” and its cuddly characters are more of a merchandising opportunity than a movie. (Corresponding stuffed animals have already made their way into McDonald’s Happy Meals.)
Still, this endearing tale of found family resonates as “Super-Pets” eventually changes form in a message film about the virtues of animal adoption. Aside from gross commercialism, the brave voice cast and defending animal-loving “Super-Pets” deserve a slightly longer line.
PG. Near theaters. Contains action, mild violence, coarse language and crude humor. 100 minutes.