Give credit to director Jared Stern: He seems to know not only how to make inspired casting choices, but when to sit back and open the floor to improv. In short, 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 along some of that 2017 film’s witty irreverence for the DC universe — an antidote to the exhausting grandiosity of Zack Snyder’s live-action take on the same characters.
Here, Superman (John Krasinski) thwarts bad guys with the help of his powered-up pup, Krypto, a Labrador-like critter from Krypton with laser vision, the ability to fly and an alter ego who goes by the name of — wait for it — Bark Kent. They’re mostly a tag-team operation while protecting Metropolis (an intriguing amalgam of several American cities), although they occasionally get backup from a deliciously droll Batman (Keanu Reeves) and the rest of the Justice League. But when a villainous hairless guinea pig named Lulu (McKinnon, having 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 ragtag group of animal allies, newly endowed with superpowers, to save them.
The leader of this pack is the quippy Ace, gifted with invincibility but cursed with a tear-jerking past. Bayer voices PB, a cheery potbellied pig and superhero fangirl who can grow or shrink. Luna is wonderfully deranged as Chip, a neurotic squirrel with the ability to control electricity. But Lyonne steals the show as Merton, playing the lightning-fast turtle as a lascivious little old lady who didn’t get the memo that’s there’s no cursing in a kids’ movie. (The swears are bleeped, for the record.)
When “Super-Pets” isn’t delivering animal antics or reveling in a drawn-out riff on “The Great British Bake Off,” it’s slyly poking fun at the larger absurdity of the superhero genre. Gags 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 entertain. The ways in which Lulu traps the Justice League — dropping Aquaman (Jemaine Clement) into a fish tank, spinning the Flash (John Early) in a hamster wheel, putting Cyborg (Daveed Diggs) on airplane mode — are more inspired. Ben Schwartz and Thomas Middleditch also delight as inseparable guinea pigs gifted with incompatible powers.
It’s unfortunate that “Super-Pets,” unlike “Lego Batman,” doesn’t commit to the off-the-wall frenzy. There are moments of sporadic distinction, but its assembly-line animation, unimaginative needle drops and predictable plot flatten it to something more pedestrian. At times, it’s tough to shake the feeling that “Super-Pets” and its cuddly characters are more of a merchandising opportunity than a movie. (Corresponding plush toys have already found their way into McDonald’s Happy Meals.)
Still, this winsome tale of found family resonates, as “Super-Pets” eventually shape-shifts into a message movie about the virtues of animal adoption. Crass commercialism aside, the valiant voice cast and championing of animal companions earn “Super-Pets” a slightly longer leash.
PG. At area theaters. Contains action, mild violence, coarse language and rude humor. 100 minutes.