I hate live-action movies where animals can talk or do anything like human’s can – such as play basketball, soccer or tango. I love animals, but I don’t see any entertainment value in movies portraying animals in real-life situations doing things you know that the only way they can do them is with the assistance of special effects. However, one thing I hate even more is a poor, unoriginal and uninspired attempt to make a popular cartoon from the mid-1960s into a live-action movie. It doesn’t do justice for the greatness of the cartoon, nor does it look good for the actors involved or Disney for making it.
After an accident in the mysterious laboratory of Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), an ordinary beagle named Shoeshine (voice of Jason Lee) finds himself with extraordinary powers – the speed of a cheetah, the ability to fly like an eagle, and the strength of an animal 100 times his weight. After being taken in as a stray by Dan Unger (James Belushi) and his son Jack (Alex Neuberger), a young boy struggling with the loss of his mother, Shoeshine begins to discover his new powers and soon reveals them to Jack. It isn’t long before Shoeshine dons a uniform and transforms into Underdog, a crime-fighting canine who vows to use his powers to protect the citizens of Capital City and, in particular, a spaniel named Polly (voice of Amy Adams). When a plot by Barsinister and his overgrown and moronic henchman Cad (Patrick Warburton) to destroy the city is discovered, there is only one dog that can shout out, “Have no fear, Underdog is here.”
True fans of the Underdog cartoon – meaning people old enough to remember Woodstock (not the bird in the Peanuts cartoons) – will absolutely detest this movie. Why? Pretty much because it’s not the cartoon and won’t speak to adults the same way it will speak to children. This is a children-friendly movie, with a simple story-line that only a complete idiot would fail to understand, and it rings Disney from beginning to end. It has good morals and teaches lessons about coming to terms with your own identity, resolving family problems, as well as how to train a talking stray dog with super powers. The bad guy and his goon are not evil to the point where it will scare children – in fact, they are quite perfect for this type of movie, and go along with the cartoonish sound effects and masterful special effects. Disney tries to make a version of the cartoon without actually making a cartoon. And while children will be fascinated and laugh 1,000 times a minute when Underdog makes his signature crash landings, adults and fans of the original will, unfortunately, want to rip their faces off.
Underdog is supposed to be a parody of Superman – they both have secret identities, super powers, women (or puppies) fantasizing about being with him, and an entire police force relying on his abilities to do the job they’re supposed to do. Underdog is basically, in a way, the poor man’s (or the children’s) Superman – and Disney does not try to hide that in the making of this movie. There is one instance where Underdog changes in a phone booth, and another where he sets up a late night rendezvous with Polly and takes her for a late night flight (a la Lois and Superman). In addition to all of this, Underdog wears a red shirt with a blue cape (Superman wears a red cape with a blue shirt). Knowing Underdog is supposed to be like Superman, it doesn't not bother me that there are so many similarities.
It does, however, bother me that there doesn't seem to be any attempt to make Underdog, a great cartoon, stand out on its own. It’s just like the filmmakers decided to follow a simple formula, one that has worked for other Disney and superhero movies (and Superman), and not make this movie interesting for everyone – especially those who are familiar with Underdog. There are a few funny one-liners from the dog and Cad, but that’s not enough to keep the attention of someone with an IQ higher than a door knob. What bothers me even more is the blatant Lady and the Tramp reference thrown into the movie, and the fact that some of the scenes where Underdog flies have the feel of the Spider-Man flicks (not to mention the fact that they take the whole “with great powers comes great responsibility” line right out of Spidey’s world).
Even more problematic is the casting of Jason Lee as the voice of Underdog. It sounds like someone is holding a knife up to Lee’s scrotum, threatening to perform a castration without anesthesia if he doesn’t speak the role. There is very little, if any, enthusiasm in his voice. He’s speaking the role of an iconic cartoon character, something that should be, in some way or another (even if the script is a little cheesy and childish), fun for an actor. Instead, it sounds like he just showed up for the paycheck.
The movie also suffers because Belushi and Neuberger are the dullest father-son duo imaginable. They do nothing to hurt the film, but they don’t exactly help it either. They try to make us believe there is a rift between the two of them, but the truth is they barely seem like father and son until more than an hour into the film. By that time, you’ll be too bored to give a hoot what happened to them before Jack Unger gave up being a cop and took a job as a security guard. Peter Dinklage, on the other hand, is the perfect villain, despite the fact that he is on the screen very little (no, that is not a wisecrack at his height), or less than he should be. Warburton is funny, as he is in almost everything he does, but his character is a little too dumb to be funny. Reading the thesaurus and using new words in the wrong fashion. Wow, funny stuff.
The truth is, kids will watch Underdog and love it. They are still impressionable to the point where talking animals and poop jokes are funny and cute. On top of that, there are silly villains, tons of first-rate special effects, and flying frogs … err, I mean, dogs. It also helps that the movie is only 82 minutes long, which is long enough for a child to be entertained and an adult to finish the fifth of vodka he or she would need to tolerate this Disney flick. Hardcore fans of the Underdog cartoon will probably want to steer clear of this one, because once Underdog comes crashing into your lap, chances are you’ll want to leave him on the curb and housebroken – mainly because he sounds like that annoying comic obsessed dude from Mallrats, minus the cursing and disgust of third nipples.
One thing Disney knows how to do is keep children interested and involved. The special features for Underdog will do just that, especially for those kids that enjoy and connect with the crime-fighting canine. Even adults will be able to throw this dog a bone and sit through the special features without wanting to send anyone through the doggy door.
The features start with a series of deleted scenes. There are a total of three, which are called “Lost Beagle,” “School Hallway,” and “First Bite Extended.” The great thing about this feature is watching all three with the introductions (you have the option to watch without, too). In most deleted scene features, there is a commentary track where the director, or anyone involved that has an opinion, babbles about what is so great about the piece of film that is not good enough to be in the film. In this case, director Frederick Du Chau gives a brief description and tells you why he chose not to use each one. Not only does he tell you about each of the three, he speaks in a voice that would connect with children and help them understand – unlike most directors who speak like they’re talking to some film student analyzing each frame. For instance, Du Chau says the second scene, a meeting between Jack and Molly (Taylor Momsen), was not needed because there is a scene similar to that one that has the same effect later in the film. Not only that, he compliments the young actors on their performances and professionalism. It’s a nice touch to a normally dull feature.
“Sit. Act. Stay: The Diary of a Dog Actor” is another solid feature. The whole thing is not only narrated by Jason Lee as Underdog, but it is interactive. There are parts of the feature that allow the viewer to press a button on their remote and “Dig Deeper” into the “human’s perspective” of the filmmaking. In other words, the whole feature is supposed to be about the life of the dog actor, not the humans. There are corny jokes, like Underdog telling the viewer that he’s going to tell the story “Hollywoof style,” and laughs at the fact that he said it. It’s a fun feature that doesn’t stick with the behind-the-scenes activity. In fact, this is a feature that fans of the Underdog cartoon would love, because it talks, in depth, about the origins of the cartoon in 1964. It is a well thought out and produced feature.
The two least enjoyable features are “Underdog Rap,” a music video by Kyle Massey, and the blooper reel. While the music is something that Disney loves to produce (look at the Mickey Mouse Club, Hannah Montana and the Cheetah Girls), you can tell they’re throwing this video on the disc to promote a soundtrack album of some sort. It’s basically an extended version of the theme song that plays throughout the movie. It’s not a terrible song, and the video is well-produced, I just think it is something that could have been discarded with the crap Underdog leaves in the backyard. Speaking of dog feces, please forget to take a look at the 1 minute and 37 seconds of bloopers. It is a pitiful excuse for a blooper reel. Normally when bloopers are included as a feature, there is something, well, funny. Not in this case. All we have is actors forgetting or misspeaking their lines, and two dogs playing footsy with one another. It’s boring, with a capital “B-O-R-I-N-G.”
The best feature is one that kids and adults will and should enjoy together. It’s called “Safe Waif,” and it is the very first cartoon that introduced the world to the humble and lovable Shoeshine Boy and his alter-ego Underdog. It is a trip down memory lane for the adults, and a learning experience for children because the quality of the animation – even on DVD – is not bright and colorful like it is today. It is grainy and dull, which truly transports you back to the 1960s, like you’re watching it for the very first time. It’s a great way to help adults connect with the younger generations. Cartoons will appeal to everyone, young or old, and when you can bring two generations together with a movie (even if it misses the mark) and the cartoon it is based on, then you have an all-around great treat.