There may be no need to fear now that Underdog is here, but there is no reason to feel very happy, either. This live-action adaptation of the 1960’s animated television show substitutes special effects for satire.
The animated series was a gentle parody of the superhero genre, with perennial milquetoast Wally Cox providing the very unheroic voice talent for the shoeshine dog who popped power pills and spoke in rhyme.
This version is a boy-and-his-dog story, alternating between crude humor and synthetic sentiment. Perennial slacker Jason Lee (“My Name is Earl”) provides the speaking voice for a sad-eyed beagle who is drummed out of the K-9 corps for making too many mistakes. Consigned to be the subject of experiments in the lab of mad scientist Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage of The Station Agent), the beagle creates chaos trying to escape. The lab is destroyed, but not before the dog is exposed to the doctor’s experimental fluid, which gives him superpowers, including the ability to speak and to fly.
Cop-turned-security guard Dan (Jim Belushi), takes him in, names him “Shoeshine,” and gives him to his estranged son Jack (Alex Neuberger). Jack is thrilled with what Shoeshine can do and helps him become the superhero known as Underdog.
The special effects are technically adept. The screenplay, however, is not. It relies heavily on doggy-doo humor and smart-alecky comments comparing humans and animals, adding in a clumsy reference to Lady and the Tramp and, even a sort of “Norma Rae” moment when Underdog pauses in the middle of a confrontations to invite the worker dogs of the world to unite. Dinklage has fun with Barsinister’s grandiosity and the ever-reliable Patrick Warburton gives what he can as the sidekick. But the he father-son reconciliation is listless and the rest of the movie is bland, tepid, and dull. If only Underdog’s superpowers included the ability to fetch a better script.
Parents should know that the movie has a lot of comic/cartoon violence. The bad guys are bashed, characters are in peril, one character has an ugly scar, and at one point it appears that a major character has been killed, but no one is seriously hurt. There is a reference to loss of a parent. A student forges a note to get out of school. Characters use some schoolyard language and there is a significant amount of potty humor. Shoeshine makes a joke about mistaking a boy dog for a girl dog and there is some boy-girl humor. There is a nod to the movie’s origins as a way to promote General Mills with some product placement of the company’s cereals.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for Jack and his father to talk to each other. What did Jack like most about Shoeshine? Why did Con want to be Dr. Barsinister’s partner? Who can you think of who could be called an underdog?