Underdog was a cartoon series that debuted way back in 1964 and had a run of 124 episodes that remained in syndication up until the 70s. That, of course, buys it enough name recognition for Hollywood to target it for a big screen reboot, but, like many of these attempts, it was a misguided failure. Right off the top, the movie makes a huge mistake by starting with clips from the original cartoon. Someone should have told the filmmakers that it’s not too good of an idea to remind the few fans of the show that might be in the audience of what they’re not going to be seeing over the course of the next 84 minutes. Now from seeing the trailers I knew what I was in for, but as Underdog was one of my childhood favourites, I had too see just how badly they were going to muck it up. With director Frederik Du Chau (Racing Stripes and Quest for Camelot) and the writer Adam Rifkin (Zoom) I certainly wasn’t expecting Batman Begins or even Ghost Rider, but, even with lowered expectations, this film still managed to surprise me on its level of lameness.
The movie starts off with the Mayor giving a speech about all the unsolved crimes in Capital City. He points to a massive pile of boxes containing all the case files. A little police beagle smells something and barks; this causes everyone to assume there is a bomb in the box and to go into full panic mode as people trample over each other to escape. Of course it’s revealed that the box in question contained nothing but a piece of meat, a gift from the Pork Association. In disgrace, the poor beagle, with the other police dogs’ laughter in his ears, leaves the force. It’s while wandering the streets in depression that he is abducted and taken to the labs of Simon Bar Sinister (Peter Dinklage) where he and his sidekick Cad (Patrick Warburton) experiment on dogs for some strange plan to create super animals to replace normal police dogs.
The cute beagle of course doesn’t want to be jabbed with a genetic cocktail and while trying to escape his pursuers he gets a whole rack of genetic chemicals (apparently DNA comes in liquid form) dumped over him and thus Underdog is born.
The beagle flees the lab and shortly thereafter runs into Dan Unger (Jim Belushi), or more accurately Dan runs over the dog. Dan happens to work as a security guard for the company that houses Simon Bar Sinister’s lab. He was a hero cop before taking up security, but he quit that job when his wife died so he wouldn’t end up making his kid an orphan one day. Dan thinks maybe a dog will help his son get over all that dead mother stuff and brings him home. The beagle, for some inexplicable reason, keeps licking Dan’s shoes so he is given the name Shoeshine. This is of course referring to Underdog’s alter ego Shoeshine Boy from the cartoon.
Jack (Alex Neuberger) isn’t too keen on having a dog and is more than willing to let his dad take it to the pound, but once he finds out it can talk and has superpowers things change. After Shoeshine saves Molly (Taylor Momsen) from muggers, Molly being a girl that Jack has the hots for, Jack decides that Shoeshine is a superhero. Now Shoeshine is still dealing with the whole inferiority complex of being an incompetent police dog and so only wants to be a normal dog, but Jack convinces him to don the costume and truly become Underdog (Jason Lee).
Meanwhile having had their lab destroyed during the creation of Underdog, Simon Bar Sinister and Cad have moved into sewers to set up shop, and to finance his further experiments, Cad enlists some goons to knock over a jewelry shop. Underdog saves the day but Cad escapes. Now Simon Bar Sinister wants Underdog so he can use his DNA to create super dogs (once again he really doesn’t seem to have an evil plan, just evil methods), and after a really lame attempt by Cad to capture Underdog they do manage to get his collar. With the address from the collar, the villains head on over and kidnap Dan. Jack and Shoeshine race to the rescue… or would if the two actually had any brains. All Jack does is provide a second hostage. Not being able to save both Jack and Dan, the brave little beagle gives himself up to Simon Bar Sinister’s evil experiments (why a dog that can fly around the world in seconds can’t defeat a little person and his moronic sidekick as quick is never explained.) Underdog’s DNA is extracted and from that the mad scientist creates two types of pills, one gives you super powers and the other makes you normal (this is another reference to the cartoons, as Underdog got his powers from super vitamin pills that he kept in his ring and which gave him the power of twenty atom bombs for twenty seconds). Simon Bar Sinister forces Underdog to take one of the pills that rob him of his power and then gives three German Shepherds the power pills and along with Cad they storm the steps of City Hall.
What nefarious demands will Simon Bar Sinister make? Will Underdog get his powers back? Can Dan retake the mantle of Hero Cop? Will Jack learn the true meaning of Christmas? And when, oh when!, will they stop making favourite cartoons into lame-o live action movies?
There is one name I haven’t mentioned yet and that is of actor Jason Lee who provides the voice of Shoeshine/Underdog, and I’d say not having his face associated with this film was a brilliant career decision. Then again, I’ve seen Alvin and the Chipmunks, so I know he isn’t actually interested in good career moves. Casting wise he isn’t the worst choice but he certainly isn’t the persona I think of when I think of Underdog, and really who could compete with Wally Cox, who voiced the character in the original cartoon. Both Peter Dinklage and Patrick Warburton manage to put in decent performances and don’t completely embarrass themselves, but any scene involving James Belushi would be a good time for you to make that popcorn run or bathroom break.
In all fairness, this film is clearly aimed at eight year-olds, and maybe they’ll get a kick out of this super dog, but if you are an adult, or even remotely a fan of the 60’s cartoon, please stay as far away as possible from this dog.
Maybe even go and check out the original cartoons, they are still a hoot. ‘When Polly’s in trouble, I am not slow, so it’s hip-hip-hip and away I go!’
A very misguided attempt at a family film that fails at both the nostalgia aspect and at bringing us a competent story.