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Depth of Field: Bad Ideas - #2: Disney's Live Action 'Underdog' Movie

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Sunday, Jul 8, 2007


While it’s never wise to rape an entire generation’s childhood memories for your own self-centered means, Hollywood still wants to be the biggest motion picture pedophile on the block. Name a cartoon and/or kiddie series – He-Man, GI Joe, The Care Bears - and somewhere, in a studio bungalow, an overpaid hack is trying to come to grips with how to re-imagine the title’s otherwise limited appeal. Perhaps no other form of filmic laziness – sequels, prequels, spin-offs – has resulted in such finite returns as live action cartoon updates. Examples like the live action Rocky and Bullwinkle fiasco, the horrendous Garfield films, and the horribly mismanaged Flintstones films have proven that – all Transformers aside – when it comes to bringing juvenilia to the silver screen, Tinsel Town is still in the zygote stages.


Now comes the most noxious example of this movie molestation yet – Underdog. Disney, not known for the gentile handling of kid vid past (Inspector Gadget), has decided to stop whoring out its own past masterworks and, instead, violate the innocent joys of the W. Watts Biggers’ television series. A staple of Saturday mornings for the majority of the ‘60s, the beloved superhero hound and his unique blend of wit and wackiness remains the perfect symbolic stepping stone between preschool entertainment and tween level treats. Putting it another way, the adventures of Shoeshine Boy, Sweet Polly Purebred, and the rest of the Underdog domain (including offshoots like Tennessee Tuxedo, Klondike Kat, and the great Go Go Gophers) helped wee ones make the transition from passive to active viewers. Biggers created characters and situations kids could invest themselves in, with just enough subtle satire to keep the parents pleased. There were even principled morals thrown in for good measure.


Of course, the best way for the House of Mouse and its corrupt creative staff to deal with updating this clear cult favorite is to literally toss out everything that made the original show stellar. However, in order to understand such a major misfire, the initial Underdog mythos must be explored. In the animated series, Shoeshine Boy was an anthropomorphic pup, working in a city of human beings as a benevolent boot black. His girlfriend was canine TV personality Sweet Polly Purebred, and together they maintained a kind of pleasing platonic romance. Whenever trouble loomed for the metropolitan citizenry, and Polly in particular, Underdog took his Super Energy Vitamin Pill and transforms into the title character. Then he would confront one of several recurring villains, including dwarf mastermind Simon Barsinister and wolf gangster Riff Raff. Speaking in rhyme and expressing a truth and justice mantra, our furry champion always saved the day – even if it took a few serialized installments to achieve victory.


In addition, each half hour episode contained supporting segments, little mini movies featuring ersatz educational and instructive messages. Granted, most of the material was couched in classic animated slapstick, the goofy comings and goings of talking penguins, Native American rodents, and – of all things – a senile geographical explorer. This helped divide up the typical Underdog adventure into several cliffhanger sections, while developing a whole new array of memorable characters for the show to profit from. None of this was done out of artistic nobility, mind you. Biggers worked as an advertising executive for General Mills, makers of fine sugar coated breakfast treats preferred by pre-adolescent appetites. All he wanted was pen and ink salesmen. But thanks to artist Joe Harris and creative team Chet Stover and Tread Covington, along with the amazing voiceover work of actor Wally Cox (a definitive turn), Underdog was much more than a cereal shill.     


So how did the geniuses over in Walt’s world decide to deal with this classic character? Did they intend to bring him back in pure 2D cell animation form, forgoing all the possible pointless pop culture updates to deliver unfettered Underdog? No, they decided to go the live action route (strike one) and make the cur champion a real dog (strike two). They then revamped his origins, removing the power pill (strike three) to forge some kind of X-Men/Hulk happenstance (dog ends up in nuclear reactor thingamajiggy – strike four?). Polly is now a pooch as well (strike…oh, who cares anymore) and our supposed hero has a human owner (grrrrrrrr!) to keep him in line. Voiced by Jason Lee (huh?) and costarring little person powerhouse Peter Dinklage as Barsinister (the only genius move in this entire gagfest), we end up with something looking like Superman with fleas, a generic action film dumbed down substantially to keep the bratlings at bay (oh, and did we mention that Riff Raff is now a Rottweiler, and apparently a rival for Polly’s affections – NOOOO!!!)


The numerous numbskull moves made by the people behind the production are nothing compared to who is helming this atrocity in the making. Thanks to a script credited to three individuals – newbies Craig A. Williams and Joe Piscatella, along with industry fixture Alan (Zoom) Rifkin – but probably touched by a dozen or so illiterate cinematic scribblers, and the dim directorial flair of Racing Stripes’ Frederik Du Chau, there is a wonderful aroma of predicated failure wafting off of this turkey. The trailer plays like every animal-oriented cliché ever conceived (jokes about gas, pee, and butt sniffing are plentiful) and the blatant CGI used to capture the critters makes the movements appear stiffer than the original cartoon’s dynamic. Like the awful robotic baby in the equally abysmal Son of the Mask, the incredibly complex movements of your basic beagle seem to baffle the multiple motherboards of the F/X techs tools.


Now, there is nothing wrong with creating your own canine superhero, giving him human qualities thanks to a freak experiment, and building an entire film out of his amiable adventures. Or simply stay with the notion of a parallel universe where animals easily coexist and speak perfect English. Oh wait, didn’t they already make that movie and call it Cats and Dogs? And didn’t it die at the box office? Granted, Disney isn’t aiming this movie at fans of the original TV show. In fact, they have obviously avoided anything that would remind viewers of their childhood chum. No, this is Underdog designed for the post-millennial age, an entity only betrothed to its own disposability, calculated to make a fast potential franchise buck before living out life in DVD stud. While the House of Mouse is downplaying future animation sequels, there’s no such mandate on live action direct to video features. That means that even if it bombs, our tick-ridden friend will be back in Underdog 2: Curse of the Choke Chain and Underdog Returns: Puppy Power!


Listen, no one is faulting Disney for trying. The business of show is a cutthroat world. Everyone is anxious to exploit product awareness, create commercial interest, and manufacture new revenue streams. Digging into the past for present day projects is nothing new (just ask one Cecil B. DeMille, who more or less remade every silent movie he ever produced), but it’s the reinvention trump card that has fans and film aficionados up in arms. See, a studio can’t just take an old icon – say Alvin and the Chipmunks – and deal directly with what made the original so memorable. No, they have to add ridiculous contemporary characteristics – how about a splash of hip hop – to mesh with the fad gadget mindset, and pray that the potential fallout and backlash doesn’t keep parents from partaking of their cinematic babysitting services (by the way, the Chipmunks dig – it’s headed to theaters this December…no kidding).


There is clearly something more to Underdog than just interchangeable super hero elements. Fansites devoted to the dog love to mention his honor, compassion and lack of ego. They enjoy the true love longings of Polly Purebred, and feast on the hissable evil of Simon Barsinister and the original Riff Raff. One woman, Suzanne Muldowney, even went so far as to turn her passion for the crime fighter into performance art. Known as the Underdog Lady, she’s made numerous appearances on Howard Stern, and even has a documentary on her life in the works. Let’s face it – people really love the original, and for Disney to dump all over it this way seems like an act of artificial arrogance. From a creative standpoint, you know they don’t enjoy this kind of commercialization, but it’s been the corporate bottom line too long to back out now. Art has long given way to cash.


So get ready for the mid-August media blitz, the pathetic promotional campaigns, the none too clever Madison Avenue tie-ins (New from the makers of Snausages – Pure Polly Sweatbreads). Star Jason Lee will joke that he made the movie for “his kids”, while messageboards will conspire to consider Scientology as the reason for his continually weak big screen choices (next up – that aforementioned Chipmunks crap). Someone will Q&A the dog, and the original cartoon will get a fleeting mention before the talking heads reset the situation by adding in carefully worded exclamations like “new”, “improved” and the most tragic of all – “update”. If ever an animated hero needed no modernizing, it’s this classic champion of the cartoon people. Bad ideas love to breed in Tinsel Town, however. And with Underdog, the cinematic sodomy continues. 

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