Reel Opinions

Sunday, August 05, 2007


The Disney studios' attempts to bring beloved cartoons to live action has been a mixed bag so far, ranging from the enjoyable (1997's George of the Jungle), to the downright disposable (1999's Inspector Gadget). Underdog, fortunately, does not fail quite as severely as Gadget, but it does very little to entertain anyone above the age of the single digits. Kids will doubtlessly find the antics of the crime-fighting dog enjoyable, while adults will most likely spend a good part of the time looking at their watches. The film is intended to be a satire of recent superhero films, but it's not smart or clever enough to come across as anything other than a mediocre time waster.

Disgraced police dog Shoeshine (named so because of his knack to lick people's shoes) finds himself on the street and without a friend after a botched attempt to sniff out a bomb. It's not long after that the little beagle finds himself in the clutches of the vertically challenged mad scientist, Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), and his dim-witted cohort Cad (Patrick Warburton). Barsinister is working on a fiendish plot to turn animals into powerful beasts that will obey only him. Shoeshine manages to escape from the lab, an accident occurs during the process, and the dog is doused with a mixture of chemicals during the chaos that gives him various super powered abilities above normal canines, including the ability to speak English, his voice now provided by comic actor Jason Lee. After the incident at the lab, the little dog wanders into the home of awkward preteen Jack (Alex Neuberger), who in compliance with the unwritten laws of family films, has a dead mother and a dad who doesn't pay enough attention to him (James Belushi). When Jack finds out his new dog can talk and has super powers, he decides that Shoeshine could use his powers to help protect Capital City, which is currently under the grips of a massive crime wave. Taking the secret identity of Underdog, Shoeshine quickly gains media attention as a hero, and wins the heart of the sweet local dog, Polly Purebread (voice by Amy Adams). The media attention unfortunately also brings Shoeshine to the attention of the evil Barsinister, who has built a new lab in the sewers underneath the city, and wants to capture the hero and use his powers toward his own ends.

The problem I had with Underdog is that it is content to not have enough fun with its own premise. Here is a movie about a dog who suddenly gains the ability to speak, fly, and has super strength. And yet, the best thing it can think of to do is to have the little canine fly around and smash through buildings. Think of the numerous possibilities you could use with this idea, and screenwriters Adam Rifkin (Zoom), Joe Piscatella, and Craig A. Williams pretty much ignore them. The movie's obviously been granted a fairly healthy special effects budget. The illusion to make the various animals talk, fly around, and other impossible things are pretty convincing for the most part. And yet, I found it hard to care, because Shoeshine himself is not a very interesting character. You would think a talking dog would have some interesting things to say at the very least. There are a couple moments where Shoeshine's owner, Jack, tries to teach him the way of the world and human society, but these are underutilized or not as much fun as they could have been. We actually get to see very little of Underdog in action or foiling human criminals, which kind of defeats the purpose of the movie in the first place, doesn't it? What fun is a movie about a super powered dog if he's mainly going to stay in regular dog form? Yeah, he talks plenty, but I wanted to see him do even more.

The movie surrounds Shoeshine/Underdog with a variety of character cliches, but once again doesn't want to do anything we haven't seen in countless other movies. We've got the lonely preteen boy who's misunderstood as being a troublemaker, and longs for the sweet girl at school (Taylor Momsen). And, of course, we've got the well-meaning workaholic dad who doesn't seem to understand his kid. I'm quite frankly tired of seeing these character types inhabiting just about every live action family film, and wish they'd either go away, or that screenwriters would find something different to do with them. The movie tries to have a little bit of fun with Shoeshine's relationship with little dog Polly, and they almost come across as a canine version of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. This is not as clever as it could have been, and doesn't get as much screen time as it should. Everything that is wrong with this movie goes right back to the point that it just doesn't go far enough with its own ideas. After the initial joy of seeing a dog flying around and talking wares off, we're sad to discover that the movie has already used up all of its bag of tricks, and just keeps on giving us the same scenes over and over again.

I cannot claim to have much knowledge of the original cartoon that inspired this film, as aside from the theme song and the fact that the character always rhymed when he talked, age has clouded over most of my memories of the show. I cannot say with any certainty how close Jason Lee comes to capturing the character, but he does at least rhyme a lot when he's playing Underdog, and his voice performance does come across as being likeable. He has a certain "everyman" quality to his voice that I liked. Same goes for Amy Adams as the voice of his love interest, and I wanted to see more of her and her relationship with Shoeshine. As far of the human cast goes, everyone is serviceable, but not much more than that. As Shoeshine's human owner, young Alex Neuberger doesn't really bring anything that no other semi-talented child actor could bring. Even the villains, who should be over the top and cartoonish, come across as disappointing. Peter Dinklage and Patrick Warburton are given very little to do, nor do they get any moment to chew the scenery like a good comic book villain should. You know your movie is not working when the villains are just as bland and underwritten as the lead kid's workaholic dad.
Underdog is a movie that should have been less willing to stick to tried and true traditions, and instead play by its own rules. It seems to have everything going for it. The dog is cute, the premise is ripe for clever satire, and the cartoon it is based on has already brought in a built-in audience. The fact that it constantly ignores its potential in each scene frustrated me to no end. The filmmakers have no one to blame but themselves for making such a lackluster film. This is not a terrible movie, but it is an extremely underwhelming one. Sometimes, being underwhelming can be even worse. This is one of those times.



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