...rather dull and uninspired, lacking in imagination or humorous spark.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"There's no need to fear.
Underdog is here!"

I'm afraid that by the time Underdog made his first appearance in an animated television series of the mid 1960s, I had long since lost any interest in TV cartoons. Thus, I largely missed out on the "Underdog" phenomenon. But now that Disney has resuscitated the character in a live-action (except for the CGI) adventure, I got the chance to see a part of what I had missed all those many years ago. If this 2007 movie is any indication, I didn't miss a lot.

Disney has always been keen on shaggy dogs, anthropomorphic cars, and frivolous, flubbery objects, so the idea of bringing "Underdog" to the big screen (and now to our comparatively little screens) probably seemed natural to them. Perhaps they forgot about things from other studios like "Howard the Duck" and "Scooby-Doo" and remembered only the box-office success of the first "Garfield" movie or the all-around success of the first "Babe" film. Fair enough. Kids might like "Underdog"; I don't know. I didn't.

The movie begins with a glance back at the old "Underdog" cartoon, its villain the wicked, crazy, and tiny Simon Barsinister, who, with "his wacky henchman Cad...schemed to rule the universe." But each time they tried to do something evil, "they were foiled by Underdog, the greatest superhero who ever lived."

When the film gets underway and the filmmakers have established their premise, they spend the next fifty or so of the movie's eight-two minutes introducing us to and giving us background on the Underdog character. The actual story line doesn't kick in until the last thirty minutes, and a good thing, too, because it has little to offer. So, basically, this is a movie about how a meek little beagle came to be the superhero known as Underdog.

Not that you'll care, but the film tells us that Underdog began life as a trained crime fighter, a part of the government's elite canine corps. But because he didn't have a very good sniffer, they booted him out. Wandering the streets alone, the minions of the dastardly Barsinister pick him up for medical experiments, and it's in Barsinister's lab that the dog accidentally splashes himself with a secret serum, giving him super powers. He becomes really, really strong, he can fly, and he can speak English.

Now, this is a Disney film, right? There's this widower dad, Dan Unger, who's quit the police force and become a security guard, and he has a teenage son, Jack, with whom he is having trouble communicating. Dan brings the recently empowered Underdog home with him, and the dog finds a new family with the father and son. However, when the dog starts speaking to the son, the son inexplicably decides not to tell his father about it. Not even when Underdog goes out and performs all kinds of heroic feats that get his name and picture in every newspaper and magazine in the world does the son mention the dog's amazing abilities to his father. Go figure.

That's about all there is to the plot. The son meets a cute girl, Molly, who has a cute female dog, Polly, and the humans and the dogs begin mild romances. Eventually, Barsinister and Cad return to the tale for the concluding half hour of action. And why are you asking if the father and son ever grow closer? I told you, this is Disney.

Originally, the wonderful character actor Wally Cox voiced Underdog. Audiences of the 1960s knew Cox from the "Mr. Peepers" television show of a decade earlier, where he played a shy, timid, unassertive schoolteacher. Later, people recognized Cox's voice as Underdog, a perfect match for the unassuming little pooch. In the present "Underdog" movie, Jason Lee voices the dog, and it's not quite the same thing.

The other characters are well enough cast, although they don't have much to do nor display much personality. The movie pretty much wastes diminutive Peter Dinklage, a terrific actor, as Barsinister, whose character describes himself as "a humble genius," and who Underdog describes as "a real-life mad scientist." Patrick Warburton fares a little better as Barsinister's dim-witted toady, Cad, the only bright spot in the movie as a guy so dumb he's funny. I mean, how many characters in movies can use a thesaurus to comic effect? Jim Belushi is the beleaguered father, Alex Neuberger the son, Taylor Mornsen the girl, and Amy Adams the voice of the girl's dog.

"Underdog" is not only silly, it's sentimental, punctuated every couple of minutes by gushy, romanticized music. Director Frederik Du Chau's pacing is fatal, the movie marching along at a deadly crawl except for brief stretches of unfunny, slapsticky action. If you recall any part of Du Chau's "Racing Stripes," you'll get the idea.

The movie's special effects are nice, though. The dog looks like it's really talking and flying. There is also a cute "Superman" sequence as Underdog takes Polly out flying, culminating in an all-too-quick reference to "Lady and the Tramp."

As I say, the main part of "Underdog" is exposition, with very little story line and some much-delayed conflict development. Maybe Disney meant the film as the first of many such episodes to come; I have no idea. What I do know is that I found the whole affair rather dull and uninspired, lacking in imagination or humorous spark. Now that I think about it, I'm not even sure if kids would enjoy it.

The Disney folks offer up the film in two sizes: 1.33:1 fullscreen and 2.35:1 widescreen. What's more, they finally seem to have abandoned the idea of labeling one or the other a "family friendly" format. Certainly, owners of widescreen TVs wouldn't find the 1.33:1 pan-and-scan rendering "friendly" in any way; it cuts out whole chunks of the image, over 40%, from the right and left sides of the screen.

A healthy bit rate ensures some strong black levels and solid colors, although the picture itself can still look a tad fuzzy in a few medium and long shots. Close-ups look detailed and well defined, however, and most of the film, give or take some minor haloing, looks clean and clear.

The audio is almost as nondescript as the feature film. There's simply not much to talk about in terms of the Dolby Digital 5.1 output. The front-channel stereo spread is decent enough, the frequencies are well balanced, and the midrange is smooth and natural. Otherwise, there is very little going on. The surrounds provide only a tiny bit of musical ambience enhancement, the bass is not very prominent, and the dynamic range sounds restricted.

I'm never sure if studios know for whom they're making the bonus items on some discs. The extras here begin with three deleted scenes, with optional introductions by the director and totaling about four minutes. These scenes seem intended for adults, while the feature film is obviously for children. So, is the idea for the movie itself to sell the disc to kids and the extras to sell it to grown-ups? The blooper reel is only about a minute and a half, so it wouldn't probably sell anything to anybody. Then there's a six-minute, making-of featurette, "Sit. Stay. Act. Diary of a Dog Actor," with additional "Dig Deeper" branches; it might possibly entertain older children. The music video "Underdog Raps" with Kyle Massey is typically Disney, so I suppose kids would like it; I hated it. And then there's an "Underdog" original cartoon episode from 1964, "Safe Waif," about five minutes long, that at least has the distinction of historical interest attached to it.

Things conclude with twelve scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at nine other Disney products; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and a nicely illustrated slipcover for the keep case.

Parting Shots:
You get the idea. I found little of interest in "Underdog." It was far too juvenile and witless for my taste. And it didn't get me to buy or eat any more breakfast cereal than usual. (Apparently, a cereal company created the old cartoon series to sell their product, and that might explain why the movie prominently displays boxes of cereal at every opportunity.) However, substituting a healthy bowl of wheat and bran for this flick might do a person more good than watching it.

"Not bird nor plane nor even frog,
It's just little old me, Underdog."


Film Value