Underdog is so piecemeal it should come with a roll of duct tape. It’s so desperate to be everything to everyone that it ends up being very little to nobody in particular. Scripted by a committee that obviously didn’t contain a logician, a comedian, or someone adept at characterization, what we wind up with is a one trick dog and pony show without the little horse. As family films go, it’s about par for the pathetic course. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t care if it entertains — it just needs to recoup its minimal monetary outlay and guarantee a decent sell through return come DVD time. It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting about this post-millennial live action update — the way it talks down to, and then plays perfunctorily, to its intended audience, or the opening credits callback to the original series, complete with material showing the classic cartoon icons we’ve come to know and love.
Forgoing the original animated series sense of serious heroics, this version of the crime-fighting cur begins with our hapless hound flunking some kind of police dog test. Picked up off the street by mad scientist Simon Barsinister and his conceited cohort, Cad, our perfectly ordinary pup becomes infused with mega-manipulated DNA, and before you know it, he’s talking, flying, and doing his damnedest to take a bite out of crime. Somehow, through contrivance or convenience, he ends up with widower ex-cop Dan Unger and his unhappy son Jack. At first, his domestic situation is perilous. Dan likes the mutt, but Jack could care less. Yet once he learns that his pet can converse, kick butt, and canvas the cityscape looking for lawlessness, our adolescent has a change of heart. They team together to rid Capital City of its occasional criminals, while fighting off the advances of Barsinister. Seems the brainiac has gone bonkers, and won’t rest until he has the newly crowned “Underdog”’s genetic material for some misguided course of world domination.
When you’re a genre — the kid’s flick — that has a hard enough time keeping one narrative conceit viable and floating in the air, trying to tackle several is creative suicide. Yet Underdog wants to walk along the course of the superhero film, the casual family drama, the retro-cool cartoon callback, and the basic boy and his dog spiel. Add in the whole anthropomorphized angle, the CGI spectacle, the grade school level humor, and the thriller-lite logistics and you’ve got the equivalent of a regurgitated Milk Bone. Indeed, there’s a real “insert idea” here dynamic at play in the film, a sense that someone came along and, for example, mandated a “father/son sitdown”, leaving the director to figure out how to wedge it in. It’s hard to fault Belgian Frederick Du Chau. He’s not really dealing with Shakespeare, and he does infuse the animal scenes with much of the magic he gave to the surprise sleeper Racing Stripes. Still, he’s not completely off the hook. He does let his action scenes veer wildly out of control, dominating the smaller facets of the film.
As for the cast, there are misguided decisions everywhere. The only clever choice was putting Peter Dinklage in the role of the psycho Simon Barsinister. While he never fully channels the animated evildoer’s maniacal menace, he is very good at stunted insanity. Unfortunately, he is given the attempted scene stealing of Patrick Warburton to work alongside. As Cad, the supposedly stupid sidekick, our pal Puddy is all over the map — cracking wise, playing dumb, attempting his own course of criminal mischief — and absolutely none of it works. He is so outside the whole Underdog ideal that you can literally see the sequences where he’s barely holding on. In the pinnacle role of human transponder, young Alex Neuberger is bad. Not ‘fall on his face, never work in show business again’ bad, but his performance argues a real inability to connect convincingly with the inanimate. This kid obviously had to work very closely with a regular dog (or a cardboard mock up) and his lack of inherent interest shows. It frequently feels like he’s merely repeating lines, not interacting with an intelligent pal.
And then there’s Jason Lee. First, a minor creative caveat — no matter how hard they tried, the creators of this cornball cash grab were never going to be able to match Wally Cox’s wonderful work on the animated series. The perfect pipsqueak, the bespectacled actor did an amazing job of both presenting Shoeshine Boy’s good natured wholesomeness and Underdog’s mutt machismo. Wisely, the movie takes the character in a different direction, and for what it’s worth, Lee is very good as the insecure hound who starts to recognize his own innate powers — its just not Underdog. He’s goofy, funny, personable, and zippy — he’s just not Underdog. In fact, the filmmakers would have been more honest with their audience had they changed the name of this film to Super–Bud (in honor of the long running athletic Golden Retriever franchise) and left it at that. It’s painful watching the story try to find ways to reference the cartoon (as when our hero mangles the English language looking for a way to say his noted catchphrase), and since it really wants to avoid the old school stance, it’s a more than mutual divorce.
In fact, what Disney should have done was step back for a moment and think this whole thing through. Instead of using Underdog for its foundation (obviously tagged for all the tie-in value, including name recognition and possible DVD offerings of the old show), they could have concocted their own talking dog adventure. They could have mined some of the same territory that Babe did, using the element of interspecies communication to anchor an entire animal oriented crime fighting unit. Like 2001’s Cats and Dogs, except with a sense of purpose, they could make their hero hound an undercover champion, playing fetch with his family by day, heading out into the city to stop crime at night. Tie it to the whole notion of what the phrase “man’s best friend” really means, and use the imagination that, at one time, made the House of Mouse famous to jumpstart your own kid-friendly franchise. Why sully a sentimental favorite with blatant product placement (General Mills) and tween tested poop jokes — especially when you have no real desire to replicate the original?
For the answer to these and other questions, there is no need to tune in tomorrow. Underdog is here today, and if the wee ones haven’t already inundated you with requests to hit the Cineplex, they will (or worse, demand a copy of their own come turnaround time). The featured beagle is very cute, endearing in a puppy dog eyes kind of way. Meshed with Lee’s likable personality, he becomes the companion every child would want. You can’t buy this kind of commercial drawing power — it’s instinctual in the prepubescent set. Though its lacks anything remotely novel or fresh, and fails to provide much in the way of adult-oriented laughs (unless you consider watching Jim Belushi’s aged behind bumble up some stairs the height of humor), the demographic will be delighted by Underdog’s zero-to-hero hokum. Who cares if the studio suits dropped the ball on this one: the little people pleasing pooch is right there, ready to fetch it all the way to the bank.