‘DC League of Super-Pets’ Director Jared Stern on Balancing Humor and Heart

While superhero movies have proven to be immensely popular with a global audience, sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the shared universes and world-ending stakes with a few laughs. Luckily, director Jared Stern puts a playful twist on our comic-book heroes by taking them out of the picture and focusing on the pets in DC League of Super-Pets.

The Nerds of Color had a chance to talk to Stern about convincing Warner Bros. to make an animated feature about super-powered pets, the fun research process, and music selection.

DC League of Super-Pets is an incredible movie. I laughed and I cried because I’m a pet owner myself. But, in a world where a superhero movie is released almost every other month, it’s nice to have a nice break from it all. So what’s the pitch meeting like for an animated feature like this?

Jared Stern: Yeah, I mean, that was sort of it. I was lucky people were like, “Hey, that hasn’t been done before. No one has thought to do that.” Obviously, people thought to do it in comics for many years, but no one had thought to do it as a big movie. And everyone loves their pets. And they’re kind of our heroes, anyways, without powers.

So yeah, so that was my pitch. And I’ve been working at Warner Bros. and partnered with DC on Lego Batman. So, when we initially brought it to DC, I was like, ‘Hey, maybe I could use a couple of these characters.’ And I was being very tentative, but I didn’t know what their plans were. And it couldn’t have been any better. So they were just like, ‘Yes, please. And also, have you considered this? And have you thought about that? And what if, like, Luthor was in the movie,’ and I was like, ‘I can do that.’

And they were like, ‘yeah.’ So it was the opposite of what I thought it was going to be and ended up becoming way more, way bigger and delving into that universe, which is, I think, hopefully, a fun way for kids to get into the universe. And also, I think that people who already love that universe will find it super fun.

Yeah, that’s what this movie does so well because there are these links that are a gateway for kids to understand and that adults can appreciate. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but the way it opens is like an homage to Superman’s origins. So how did you strike that balance between the emotion, the humor, and comic book lore?

Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean, it’s just balance and trial and error. But, you know, we get four years to make this movie, which is a long time, and it lets you figure it out and see what’s right.

You know, you talk about the opening. We opened with the origin of how Krypto and Superman got to Earth, and we were always bouncing. There are going to be kids seeing this movie who don’t know any of the backstory stuff at all. And so, we don’t want them to be lost. We want them to understand everything. And yet, we are also going to have a lot of people watching this movie who have seen that ad nauseam. So, we don’t want them to be bored or feel like, ‘oh, god, that again.’ So it’s really tricky. You have to pretend that the person in the theater could be an alien, right? Like, ‘who’s never heard of Superman?’ That’s a tricky thing to do. And yeah, it sort of forces you in a good way, I think, to tell a stronger story.

I think it forced us to be more clever in terms of balancing emotion and comedy. You want people to get lost in your characters. So, you never want to be so goofy that it takes them out. But you’d be amazed how far you can go in bending that before it breaks. So often, I’ll put a joke in the middle of the most emotional scene. And someone will say he can’t do that. It’s going to take you out of the scene.’ And I’m like, ‘No, well, they’re going to actually be happy to have a breath. And then they’re going to go right back into caring.’ And by the way, sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes, it does completely take you out. And I admit it, but more often than not, you can, you can throw jokes into the most emotional part. And you can throw a motion into the silliest part, and people will go with it as long as they’re invested in the characters.

So speaking of the comedy, the film plays around with that Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart dynamic we all know and love to see. Did you have any trouble containing their energies and keeping things in order? Also, I noticed that Ace is one of the most subdued roles that Kevin has played, so what was that like to have him do something completely new regarding a voiceover role?

We let them run and do whatever they wanted. But I think that Kevin, you might have seen him in other animation stuff, being more boisterous or in his comedies. But he’s a fantastic actor and a fantastic dramatic actor. And so I was really excited for him to show that side within this while still being super fun. He was really excited to try that. Kevin had this take on this movie where it wasn’t going to be the thing you’ve seen a million times. He was going to do a very specific thing for our character Ace, the Bat-Hound, and it’s kind of an older guy who’s had a rough life and cares about people even though he rolls his eyes about it, and, and maybe deep down he’s still missing love. And I think he nailed it.

Now, I want to get into the animation side of things. How much research went into the pets’ movements and tying that into the comic book side of the film?

Yeah, that’s a great question. In designing our characters, we wanted them to be caricatures. But we also wanted you to feel like when they got superpowers that it was pretty cool, and you believe the battles that they would have.

And so, we leaned into this sort of anatomy of the animals and the stuff that was somewhat more realistic than some of the more cartoony things, but still fun. So we looked at a ton of animals. For example, for Krypto’s design, we looked at different dogs to figure out, ‘what looks like the Superman of dogs?’ You couldn’t put muscles on the dog. That looks weird. But we found this dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, which, sadly, was used for hunting lions originally. But they’re beautiful dogs. And they have like big barrel chests and tiny waists. And they kind of look like if Superman was a dog. So that went into the Krypto design.

We would visit with pets. And producers brought in both from a local guinea pig rescue and a whole bunch of guinea pigs, which was really fun. So, that was a great day just watching all of our artists interact with guinea pigs, drawing them and holding them. You know, it’s just one thing to imagine in your head when you’re writing it. But when you’ve held an animal, it changes how you think about them. So, we did all sorts of stuff like that to try to get into their heads.

And that’s another thing I wanted to talk about next. What went into deciding the power sets for Lulu’s guinea pigs?

I think the thing with guinea pigs we realized is, they’re really adorable, pretty close to how they are. They, almost in real life, look like a caricature cartoon of an animal. You can’t believe that when you look at them, especially head-on. They’re so ridiculous and fun and adorable. There are these great videos with like two of them facing forward. And they’re both like chewing on the same piece of lettuce.

So even when they get their powers, I guess one of them kind of transforms his body in an almost Hulk-like way and becomes a sort of Fabio guinea pig. But the others, they kind of retain that fun shape. We love that shape. We didn’t want to get too far away from it. And yet, are on fire or made device or what have you. So that was kind of where we went with that.

Finally, I have to ask about those needle drops. In one scene, we see the strong and courageous Krypto revert to a sobbing mess when Clark leaves him for a date with Lois on Great British Bake-Off night. And during that time, he’s pumping Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” So can you talk about what when into the selection process?

So, I mean, that song sort of fit perfectly for that moment. It’s a moment where Krypto is annoyed with Superman and feels like he’s a petulant teenager, and he goes up into his bedroom, slams the door shut, and pops on his big headphones. And “Bad Blood” was the exact right song for that moment. And it’s not in the movie for that long, but I was like, we have to have it. And luckily, Dwayne is a huge fan of Taylor Swift. I am a huge fan. And we reached out, and she liked the movie. And thank goodness she did and was willing to let us use that song because it’s one of our favorite parts of the film.

Everyone at Warner Bros. Music was always pushing us to think outside the box, and we didn’t have our own ideas. But they would always come to us with more ideas, which I love. And sometimes it was the one that I initially thought and but many more times it was something much smarter that they came up with where they’ve just heard what about this, and they popped it in, and I’m like, ‘Ah, how could it have ever been anything different?’

We had a pretty good budget. So there’s just some fun, and there isn’t really a giant overarching musical vision with the needle drops that are in the movie. It’s just what made us happy and what worked in those moments. It almost feels like I made a mix of just things that make me happy. There’s a Queen song, and there’s a Taylor Swift song, and then there’s Tribe Called Quest. Then there’s Burt Bacharach, and then there’s Pharcyde. So it’s a window into the stuff that I like. But also, most importantly, that work worked in the film in those moments.

DC League of Super-Pets opens in theaters on July 29, 2022.