Aug 12, 2007

Movie Review: Underdog (2007)

Based on the cartoon series from the 60’s that continued in reruns well beyond its initial life, Underdog is the latest attempt to score a double whammy on the family crowd. With the concept of a superhero dog that thwarts evil all while looking just as cute and cuddly as a stuffed animal, the kids are a surefire draw. At the same time, a nostalgic response is expected to make the parents more likely to give in to the kid’s desires. The kids won’t be disappointed. The parents are a different matter.

The cartoon, while roughly drawn, gained its charm and appeal from the fact that it took place in a fun, slightly surreal world where dogs and humans were equals. The dogs talked, held jobs, were villains and superheroes, just like the humans. Apparently assuming that this current generation of children wouldn’t be able to accept such an odd society, the movie takes place in a normal world where animals are pets and dogs can only become superheroes when a mad scientist tampers with their DNA. This dull setup is the first major problem with the film.

The other big stumbling block is Jason Lee (Chasing Amy) as the voice of the titular hero. While he is normally a reliable comic actor, his version of Underdog is smug and full of wisecracks, far from the “humble and lovable” Shoeshine Boy and his superhero alter ego from the cartoon. There is also the fact that Lee narrates much of the film and while I’m sure this was unintended, it reminded me way too much of his narration on My Name is Earl.

The rest of the cast is surprisingly well put together. Whoever decided to cast Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) as Simon Bar-Sinister is a genius. Not only does he look the part, his voice and menacing glare make him an actually threatening villain in a movie that needs a spark. It also helps that he gets to share most of his scenes with Patrick Warburton (Men in Black II). As Simon’s big, dumb lug of an assistant, Cad, Warburton uses his precise comic timing to wring a few laughs out of the material for the adults in the audience. Even Jim Belushi as a kindly ex-cop who adopts the homeless Shoeshine Boy, manages to throttle back on the hamminess and is at times (dare I say it?), even charming.

Unlike most kids films designed to cash in for a quick buck, it actually looks like some care went into the production. The effects look great and the action scenes, while nothing spectacular, are handled with a sure hand, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the kids in the audience. It makes me wonder why they didn’t put that amount of effort into finding a dog that looks at least a little something like the cartoon version.

Personally, being a nostalgic sucker for cartoons of my childhood, the best part of the film was the minute or so of clips from the original Underdog series. Unfortunately, that wistful moment comes at the beginning of the movie so that nearly everything after was downhill. But, if you’re a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent or just some poor babysitter, there are worse things to take the kiddies to see than Underdog. It’s innocuous entertainment that will amuse most children under the age of eight. For the adults, well…it barely runs 80 minutes, so you don’t give up that much of your life to keep the young ones occupied while you get some much-needed rest.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film reviewer in Chicago who was appalled by the inevitable hip-hop updating of the classic Underdog theme song.

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