Background: Childhood memories of favored cartoons have long been subject to movies being made, with the results varying substantially, from what I've seen. One title I remember from the 1960's was Underdog, the recent packages showing that fans will never see uncensored versions in this politically correct day and age; the show the result of cereal marketers trying to hawk their wares to us unsuspecting kids back before government regulations forced companies to at least pay off their congressmen heaps of cash to get away with it. Given the fact that the show was a parody of Superman and other hero comic books of the time, no one really considered making a feature movie until Disney decided to do so, the result being the subject of today's review of the Blu-ray version of Underdog.
Movie: Underdog is a live action show that uses the same kind of human voiceovers and CGI to make it look like the animals are talking. Recent examples like Garfield and Racing Stripes having found an audience, it makes sense for content providers like Disney to revisit the classics, though anyone that has seen the cartoon of late will probably understand me when I say that there was scant little on which to build an entire movie. Still, the basics were covered and the nods to the original cartoon were plentiful so I took the approach that this was made strictly for kids, preferably the kind that ride the short bus to school. The movie begins by showing a police beagle (voice by Jason Lee) screwing up a press conference and being fired, then picked up by a henchman in the form of Cad (Patrick Warburton), who takes him to a secret animal testing facility (presumably an unlicensed program given the shape of the animals held in the cages). There we meet Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), an evil genius and the only human cast member worth a damn, to further the movie as he prepares to inject a glowing serum into the beagle; telling the dog that it will hurt "a lot!" as if to establish his evil scientist credentials.
The genetic experiments are being held to advance mankind and greatly profit Barsinister, the resulting chaos from the dog trying to avoid the needle blowing up the laboratory but also giving him super powers in the process. The dog is picked up as a stray by dopey Dan Unger (James Belushi in his worst, most disposable, role to date) and named Shoeshine, an homage to the original cartoon character. Shoeshine can fly, has super strength, enhanced senses, and is incredibly clumsy as he leaves a swath of destruction in his wake but after some discussion with his new teenage owner, Dan's son Jack (Alex Neuberger), yeah he can talk too, they decide to keep the powers a secret as Barsinister tries to recover the dog using stupid Cad.
The rest of the first half of the story involves Shoeshine learning to cope with his powers and coming up with the hero disguise of Underdog; using one of Dan's old sweaters as his outfit while he saves the day time and again. Barsinister keeps working on his now underground project, his brain damaged as a result of the lab explosion, but like most Disney releases, the plot thickens from both ends before the hero meets the villain in combat. Underdog uses his gifts in a largely responsible manner though, the quirks added in for comedy as the usual assortment of gags comes into play. The decision to use silly bathroom humor and innuendo was unfortunate as it really didn't work most of the time, Lee's role a far cry from his talented offerings of the past. The writing of the characters was the biggest problem here, all of the cast except Dinklage sleepwalking through their roles as though they were on autopilot, Dinklage at least having the savvy to mug for the camera and otherwise use body language to convey his character's evil nature.
I really didn't expect much from a movie bandied about as the "worst movie of the year" by numerous sources but keeping in mind that it was designed for kids to enjoy, not stuffy adults, it struck me as a decent enough homage to the admittedly limited cartoon from 40+ years ago. The flying sequences and montage of him saving the crime ridden city worked better than the romantic interest of cocker spaniel Polly Purebred and her reporter owner; the gimmick wearing thin until the weaker plotted points came out to reinforce my belief that this kind of thing would work better as a series for Disney than a full fledged feature flick. Kid audiences are fickle though so I decided to rate this one as a Rent It but I could see it working for the pre-teen crowd better despite the limitations presented; the movie giving me the impression that the producers couldn't decide what audience to make this one for; the retro crowd like myself not the best way to go and too many of the jokes geared towards older kids.
Picture: Underdog was presented in the original 2.35:1 ratio widescreen as shot by director Frederik Du Chau using a 1080p resolution and AVC encoding providing a bitrate hovering around the mid 20's in Mbps most of the time. I haven't seen the SD version of the movie but I can safely say that this one looked very sharp in most instances, the details during the well lit daytime scenes far better than the darker dungeon or night scenes. There was some grain and the special effects did not look especially high end this time, the picture decidedly middle of the pack but not bad by any means. The blacks looked worse than usual here, with some noise and grain easily discerned during the darker scenes, and the disc itself was among the quirkiest of the many I've picked up of late (some features working intermittently unless the machine was stopped and started back up), but as uneven as the visual appeal of the movie may have been. It still worked well with the solid audio offering mentioned below.
Sound: The audio was presented with some of the usual choices, the primary track being the 5.1 Uncompressed 48 kHz/24 bit PCM English track with a bitrate of 4.5 Mbps. There were also 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in English, French, and Spanish clocking in at 640 Kbps but a casual listen convinced me that the primary track was the best if only by a modest amount. There was a decent amount of use on the rear speakers and bass, the headspace above average though not substantially better than other Disney releases. The best use of audio was during the action sequences but the score and special effects were weaved into the vocals competently to provide an aural experience suitable for the kids to appreciate. The subtitles were in English, French and Spanish for those who care; providing a copy of the spoken track as best I could tell with the words easily read.
Extras: This being a new movie, the extras were pretty solid with 8:06 minutes of deleted scenes, complete with introductions by the director, up first. His explanations for why they were deleted seemed questionable at times but I enjoyed them as providing some better background information for the show. That they were included in high definition was a bonus for me too, something older releases don't typically offer (the best looking being the CGI enhanced reentry from orbit). There were trailers and even a couple of the original Underdog cartoons (Safe Waif and Simon Says), a cute music video by Kyle Massey (a rap video made for kids that combined clips and some kids dancing on a virtual rooftop), a few bloopers, and a behind the scenes fluff piece. The BTS was labeled as Sit Stay Act: Diary of a Dog Actor where Jason Lee narrated the piece as the beagle. It was actually cute but geared towards kids so your mileage may vary. There was another extra that was undocumented (outside of the BTS mentioning it) where an icon would appear on screen during the BTS to show clips of the special effects used.
Final Thoughts: Underdog is not made for a larger audience, almost defining itself as made for children by virtue of Disney's Spyglass Entertainment outlet, but the kids will like it and for all its faults it was the kind of retro show that might work better as a series on the Disney Channel or as a series of made for TV movies like the company has offered in the past. The Blu-ray treatment seemed largely wasted here but the extras and technical matters were handled well enough, making Underdog a series with potential if not a movie living up to it. Maybe the suits at Disney will wise up and hire a better writing team for a television outing too but the biggest problem with the movie was almost always the writing and not the cast so who knows. Give this one a look with your kids and if you seriously think the cartoon was better, especially the watered down syndicated version of the cartoon available these days, you might want to compare them a little closer.