Director: Frederik Du Chau
Cast: Alex Neuberger, Peter Dinklage, James Belushi, Patrick Warburton, Taylor Momsen, the voices of Jason Lee, Amy Adams, Brad Garrett
MPAA Rating: (for rude humor, mild language and action)
Running Time: 1:24
Release Date: 8/3/07
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Review by Mark Dujsik
A live-action version of the 1960s-70s cartoon "Underdog" seemed a really bad idea, but it turns out it was merely a bad idea. Underdog lacks a unique identity, tying together the basic threads of the typical superhero, boy-and-his-dog, and animals-acting-like-human stories without any seeming inspiration or imagination. Strange, because the movie's opening scenes hint at a potential for both of those qualities. A young pup works for a big city police department, messes up, and finds itself being barked at by the more hardened, experienced dogs. The scene feels so right in its playful send-up of genre movies, seeing the absurdity of the cliché of a rookie being setup as, well, an underdog, that at that moment, I was completely willing to go along with the concept. Turns out, I was mistaken, because the hilarious slow-motion walk of shame turns into a gimmick to allow the dogs to begin speaking in English, spouting all the clichéd dialogue we imagined they were barking. It's rare to see a movie lose it in single scene, but that's what happens here. And people wonder why my love of movies is imbued with a certain cynicism about them.
The pup in question is a Beagle with an underdeveloped sense of smell and the voice of Jason Lee. Mistaking a ham for a bomb and sending those German Shepherds bark-laughing, the dog leaves the police and is picked up by a stranger. The hound's destination is not the pound but to a laboratory where Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), with little help from his dim-witted minion Cad (Patrick Warburton), is conducting genetic tests to try to create a super-dog. While escaping Barsinister's lab, the dog is accidentally drenched in the mad scientist's formula and gains a bunch of superpowers. It's then hit by a car driven by Dan Unger (James Belushi), a security guard at Barsinister's lab. Dan takes it home to his troubled son Jack (Alex Neuberger) and names it Shoeshine, after its penchant for licking shoes. The first day alone is rough on Shoeshine, leaving the house a mess in attempts to do dog things (get food, retrieve a ball, etc.), and Jack is now more than ever convinced the dog was a bad idea. That's until Shoeshine talks to him, shows him some abilities, and saves Jack's crush Molly (Taylor Momsen) and her dog Polly (voice of Amy Adams) from some thugs.
There's the potential for humor here in taking the superhero formula and retooling it for a canine—a bit of lighthearted deflating of the genre, really. Instead of humorously playing with the superhero movie, it takes the superhero genre straight and tries to instill humor into it. The former seems a better approach given the material and how well those opening moments work, but it is slightly unfair to entirely criticize a movie for what it's not. The superhero moments are played straight, and the doggie is meant to be a true superhero and not a parody of one. There are the usual scenes: a dream montage showing what abilities Shoeshine has gained, a montage of costume choices leading to the naming of the hero as Underdog, a montage of stopping crimes and rescuing people, an evil plan by the villain revealed, and a showdown at the end. Underdog comes up with a gimmick to rhyme everything (He tries with mixed results to develop a catch phrase during the crime-stopping montage, ending up with the staple, "There's no need to fear. Underdog is here."), and he takes Polly for a flight around town. That scene starts off as pure Superman homage and ends with a nod to Lady and the Tramp.
Some of this works as mild enjoyment, like Shoeshine digging all the way to China and immediately returning and his discovery of the ability to fly, knocking into everything as he goes. For the most part, though, it's all too familiar with nothing new added to the equation. The other parts of the formula mixed in here fare worse. The tricky relationship between Dan and Jack seems added in for no reason except that any time a boy gets a dog in a movie like this it will make him appreciate his father more (that and it's hard to find any emotional connection to an anthropomorphized dog's trials and tribulations). The humor avoids what one would think would be obvious—jokes about superheroes—and instead goes for an entirely different type of obviousness. Lots of jokes about a dog's life arise. References to eating vomit for a second meal, an inability to not catch a Frisbee that's been thrown, butt-sniffing, and drinking from the toilet (although the line about Jack as the guy "who pees in my white, porcelain drinking bowl" is admittedly amusing). We've heard all these jokes before, and they're still evidence of a lack of imagination.
Still, the movie has a good spirit, Jason Lee is affable as the pup's voice, and the special effects work quite well. The elements that make up Underdog are just far too familiar without any sense of acknowledging that familiarity to make it fresh.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.