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Underdog (2007)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"And You Thought Michael Vick Was Hard On Dogs."
1 stars

My beloved mother is a woman who has never much had a use for science-fiction or fantasy-based entertainment–she was perhaps the only child in America who didn’t care much for “The Wizard of Oz” when she first saw it (though I suspect that this may have been due to the nightmare fuel supplied by those flying monkeys), she only saw the original “Star Wars” movies more than once because her children pretty much forced her to sit through them multiple times and I can’t imagine any situation in which she would want to sit through any of the “Lord of the Rings” saga. To be fair, she has in the past demonstrated a couple of exceptions to her anti-fantasy agenda. For one, she cheerfully gears up once every 18 months for the new Harry Potter film (although she has yet to crack open any of the books) and for another, she has always had a soft spot in her heart for the adventures of Underdog, the canine superhero who, armed only with the power of righteousness, the voice of Wally Cox and a magical energy pill(!), saved the citizens of Capital City (especially intrepid and easily endangered reporter Polly Purebred) from a never-ending array of poorly-animated villains on television every afternoon on WFLD-TV in those glorious pre-Fox-takeover days when they would show such things as the Three Stooges, the Little Rascals and the hilarious horror host Son of Svengoolie, to name three other things that her offspring bewildered her by watching religiously.

As a result, she was actually excited–or as excited as she could possibly get over something so silly–when she learned that a feature film version of “Underdog” was in the offing. She was delighted when I presented her with an Underdog promotional calendar that I received in the mail a few months ago. Hell, she was still guardedly optimistic when the first trailer emerged that showed viewers that the title role was being portrayed by a series of real dogs augmented by elaborate CGI effects and the vocal stylings of Jason Lee. Now I find myself in the unenviable position of informing my mother that her dream film is a bigger dog than any of its lead characters. That is actually putting it mildly–the film is a smug and contemptuous mess from beginning to end that is likely to bore little kids and aggravate anyone still holding fond memories of the character from their own childhoods. At the risk of sounding glib, what the producers of this film do to their dog is roughly akin to what Michael Vick is accused of doing to his.

I suspect that the problems with “Underdog” began when the producers nabbed the rights to the property in order to make a feature-length film and then realized to their horror that while it was one remarkably ill-suited for such a translation. For starters, most kids today–the presumed target audience–only know the character through his annual appearances in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade than from actually watching the show. Then there is the fact that while the program was often amusing enough (mostly thanks to the vocal contributions of Cox and Paul Frees), the character was pretty much a one-joke creation that was endurable in six-minute chunks in-between the likes of the erudite Tennessee Tuxedo, the wildly racist Go-Go Gophers and the wildly uninteresting Klondike Kat but which didn’t exactly lend itself to an extended treatment. Of course, there was also that strange-even-for-the-1960's aspect of having its hero, meek little Shoeshine Boy, tap into his powers and become Underdog by popping his super-energy pill. If the makers of “Underdog” had any sense at all, they would have abandoned the project altogether upon realizing these limitations but if they had to barrel ahead, you might have hoped that they could have found a clever and amusing way of bringing this property into contemporary times in the way that others did with such genuinely amusing efforts as the live-action versions of “George of the Jungle” and “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle” (a film whose charms are not limited solely to the presence of Piper Perabo in the cast).

Alas, instead of taking that approach–one that might have forced them to utilize such rare commodities as wit and taste–the makers of “Underdog” have instead decided to simply give us a bastardized version of a standard “Underdog” episode stretched out to 11 times its normal length. Our hero is an ordinary dog who is drummed out of the K-9 corps for mistaking a ham for a bomb and who feels really bad about failing to be the do-gooder that he wants to be. For reasons too incoherent to get into, he finds himself the subject of a bizarre genetic experiment run by mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister (Peter Dinklage) and lunkheaded assistant Cad (Patrick Warburton). He escapes and then finds himself in an even-more-terrifying predicament–he is adopted by single dad Jim Belushi in an effort to bond with sullen son Jack (Alex Neuberger) after the death of his mother. Before long, the dog–named Shoeshine because of his love of licking shoes–discovers that he possesses an array of superpowers and the snarky tones of Jason Lee and, with the help of Jack, uses them to fight crime in Capital City under the alias of Underdog. After about a hour or so of screen time, Underdog winds up literally meeting his maker in a final showdown with the now-cuckoo Simon Bar Sinister, who is now threatening to set a bomb off that will do some damn thing or another to the populace of Capital City.

None of it works for a minute–the screenplay is pointless, meandering and derivative, the jokes rarely rise above the level of poop gags and feline abuse and the film has so little understanding of the story it is trying to tell that it has Simon Bar Sinister being captured in the end by fricking Jim Belushi instead of, you know, UNDERDOG! However, even if the screenplay had somehow turned out to be a miracle of contemporary screenwriting–suppose that the Coen Brothers or Charlie Kaufman had decided to take a whack at it–the film would have still been terrible because of the inexplicable decision to have the main character be portrayed by a real-life dog. Yes, I know it is all in good fun and I presume that no animals were harmed during the making of the film (although I can’t confirm this for reasons that I will explain in the next paragraph). That said, even though I am more of a cat person than a dog person, the sight of a real dog looking as if it is smashing against walls and hurtling through office windows is one of those visuals that is so questionable from a taste perspective that it is impossible to think of anything else during the action scenes. In the cartoons, this wasn’t such a big deal since a.) the animation was too cheap to be even remotely realistic and b.) the fact that the fact that everything was animated put all of the characters, human and canine alike, on even footing. Here, they are as separate as they are in real life so when it comes to the big fight scene towards the end, we aren’t as much watching a battle between Underdog and Simon Bar Sinister as we are spying a rassling match between a dog and a midget, the kind of thing you expect on an especially tawdry reality show and not in a big-budget kiddie movie.

Outside of Dinklage, who is clearly having a blast playing Simon and who provides the film with its only glimmers of genuine life, the best thing about “Underdog” was the end credits, or rather the lack of them. You see, at the screening I attended, the projectionist cut the film off just as the end credits, not to mention the fake outtakes included therein, were about to roll. Although I couldn’t possibly imagine any situation at that point in which I would actually want to watch more of “Underdog,” I went out to remind the manager that this was probably a violation of their contract with the distributors and was rewarded for my vague surliness with some free passes. No doubt I will pass these passes on to my mother so that she can use them to see something a little more entertaining and artistically meaningful than the likes of “Underdog”–maybe she can find a place where “Captivity” or “I Know Who Killed Me” are still playing.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16403&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/10/07 02:19:53
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User Comments

11/30/13 David Fowler An oozing, festered carbuncle upon my childhood memory of the REAL "Underdog". 1 stars
12/18/09 Jeff Wilder Hollywood needs to quit with these damn Saturday Morning Cartoon remakes already. 1 stars
1/12/09 Anonymous. please DON'T make a sequel. not every movie needs a sequel! :/ 3 stars
11/05/07 Pete Knight Great Movie hurry up and Make a sequel 5 stars
9/02/07 Jena Mosca Underdog rocks its 1 of the best movies i EVER SAW !! 5 stars
8/05/07 Tiffany Losco My family loved this movie. Great for the kids. 5 stars
8/04/07 Kelly Whitekiller just cutesy for the kids 3 stars
8/04/07 Jeff Anderson A total dog & just terrible! HOLLYWOOD, STOP RUINING & SCREWING UP THE CLASSICS PLEASE!!!!! 1 stars
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  03-Aug-2007 (PG)
  DVD: 18-Dec-2007



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