Over the years a lot of classic cartoons have seen live-action adaptations, from the Flintstones to Scooby-Doo the process has become an industry juggernaut, but long before Walt Disney Productions were re-tooling their own animated classics into live-action cash machines they took a swing at taking a beloved cartoon of old and giving it that selfsame treatment, to say it did not go well would be putting it mildly. It was in 2007 that Underdog hit the big screen with a resounding thud and became something most have likely forgotten while many wish it never had never existed.
How does one go about adapting a whimsically goofy cartoon show from the 60s into a live-action comedy? Easy answer, you completely abandon everything that made the original interesting and graft on every generic “family-friendly” cliché you can come up with so that is almost completely unrecognizable from the source material, and that is exactly what the people at Disney did. The movie starts off with a beagle on the police bomb squad being disgraced after it mistakes a leg of pork for a bomb, who during his walk of shame is abducted off of the street by Cad Lackey (Patrick Warburton), who then takes him to the lab of local mad scientist Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) and after the typical dog destruction shenanigans that ensue, completely destroying the lab in a fire, the beagle is exposed to various chemicals, modifying his DNA and give him superpowers which allow him to escape.
While fleeing the destruction of the lab the beagle runs into Dan Unger (Jim Belushi), an ex-cop now working as a security guard at the building that housed the lab, thinking that a new dog would be the perfect thing to help his son Jack (Alex Neuberger) get over the loss of his mother. which certainly sounds logical to me, and so he brings the dog home, who he names Shoeshine (Jason Lee) because the dog had licked his shoes. And before you can say “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here” Jack discovers that not only has the dog have superpowers but it can talk and after bonding over their mutual yet separate attractions to school reporter Molly (Taylor Momsen) and her dog Polly (Amy Adams), who Shoeshine rescues from a pair of muggers, Jack comes to the conclusion that his pet should become a superhero. For some idiotic reason, we’re assuming forced conflict here, Shoeshine is reluctant to become a public figure so Jack comes up with the idea of a superhero costume to conceal his true identity and thus he cobbles together a shrunken red sweater and blue cape as a disguise, and thus Underdog is born.
The so-called plot of this film deals with Simon Barsinister working out of his sewer-based lab in an attempt to replicate the accident that created Underdog, which leads to Barsinister using both Jack and Dan as hostages to convince Shoeshine to give up his DNA, you know your typical villain schtick, and the end result is him being able to synthesize Underdog’s superpowers into two types of pills; one which negates Underdog’s powers while the other he gives to three German Shepherds turning them into evil super dogs. How will Jack and Dan escape the clutches of this mad scientist? What nefarious demands will Simon Bar Sinister make? Will Underdog get his powers back? Can Dan retake the mantle of Hero Cop? Will Jack and Molly learn the true meaning of Christmas?
- We get an opening credit sequence that contains clips from the original Underdog cartoon but after that title animation, the story bears no resemblance to that show, which begs the question “What was the point of that?”
- This movie continues the long-standing tradition of having at least one dead parent in a Disney film.
- This cute little beagle licks Dan’s shoes so he names the puppy Shoeshine, which is a nod to the cartoon character’s alter-ego Shoeshine Boy but, when you think of it, this is a rather degrading name in this case.
- Shoeshine is repeatedly harassed by a Rottweiler named Riff Raff which is another reference to the cartoon that makes no sense here. In the cartoon Riff Raff was an anthropomorphic wolf gangster, based on actor George Raft, but here he’s just a dog version of a street bully.
- In the cartoon, Polly Purebred was a reporter but here she is simply a dog owned by a girl who is a reporter for the school paper.
- With Polly being an actual dog in this incarnation you’d think her sense of smell would reveal that Shoeshine and Underdog were one and the same.
- Amy Adams voices Polly Purebred, who is the Lois Lane equivalent in the Underdog cartoon, and she would later actually play Lois Lane in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.
- Underdog is reluctant to become a superhero because he’s afraid Simon Barsinister will recognize him and take him back, thus Jack comes up with the Underdog costume as an alternate identity, the thing is, being a superpowered dog is enough for the villains to know he’s their escaped dog so all this is basically pointless.
- Simon Bar Sinister creating pills that will give or take away powers is another nod to the original show as Underdog would keep an “Underdog Super Energy Pill” in a hidden compartment in his ring which he would take to replenish his powers. It should be noted there were no “remove power” pills in the cartoon.
- We get a “romantic” scene between Underdog and Polly that references the classic meatball scene from Disney’s Lady & the Tramp, which is in clear violation of the cinematic rule “Don’t remind us of better movies.”
The selling point of these types of projects is in the hope of cashing in on the ever-elusive nostalgia factor but in the case of this Underdog adaptation everything that fans of the original cartoon may have remembered has been stripped away in favour of a lame “Boy and his Dog” story and as for the younger viewers who have never even heard of Underdog there’s nothing all that fun or engaging for them to grasp hold of. I’ll give it that Peter Dinklage and Patrick Warburton were fun as Simon Barsinister and Cad but Jason Lee’s voice work as Underdog was completely uninspired, then again who could compete with Wally Cox’s original voice work. Things are not all helped by the fact that Alex Neuberger was a terrible child actor and that Jim Belushi was clearly in paycheck mode. The only aspect from the cartoon that remained was Underdog speaking in rhyming couplets, though in this film only on occasion, and his penchant for collateral damage during his rescues is, at least, consistent with the original character, but other than that this Underdog is a completely different animal from the original cartoon and not in a good way. Basically, what I’m saying is don’t waste the 84-minutes it would take to watch this film and track down the original cartoon instead.
A very misguided attempt at a family film that fails at both the nostalgia aspect and at bringing us a competent story.