"Underdog" opens with a glimpse of the cartoon hit of the 1960s, which is a dangerous proposition. Why give audiences a peek at what they once loved only to turn it into a live-action bastardization they couldn't possibly recognize?
A disgraced police beagle, Shoeshine (Voiced by Jason Lee) has been picked up by the evil Simon Bar Sinister (Peter Dinklage) for a special experiment using enhanced DNA on dogs. Managing to escape after being doused with a special potion, Shoeshine finds his way into the home of young Jack (Alex Neuberger), who enjoys the newfound company. Now blessed with super powers, Shoeshine becomes Underdog, looking to stop crime, woo Polly Purebred (Amy Adams), and thwart Sinister's new plans to rule the city.
"Underdog" comes from the limited-imagination school of "Garfield," taking an adored animated creation and turning it into a bizarre live-action situation where the purity of the source material is fogged up by the technology of the update. That said, "Underdog" is not nearly as painful as the lasagna-loving feline, but the senseless nature of the whole endeavor stinks up the film quickly. "Underdog" is one property that didn't need the CG overhaul.
Director Frederik Du Chau, who was last seen killing family entertainment with "Racing Stripes," shows much more filmmaking restraint with "Underdog." He's respectful to the source material to a certain point, making ample room for Underdog's feats of heroism. The picture is actually an origin tale, with the flying canine getting used to his powers for much of the picture, leaving the door wide open for a sequel that should take more advantage of what the "Underdog" world has to offer.
It's the performances that ruin the simplistic entertainment value of a dog fighting crime. As much as I adore Jason Lee, his raspy yapping never takes a rest during the whole damn film. The character provides a running commentary to best dumb down the plot for youngsters and to endlessly joke around. Apparently, the idea of a beagle in a red sweater fighting diminutive Peter Dinklage wasn't enough to power the laugh department, so we have our hero cracking wise about everyday dog problems like eating vomit or poop.
Speaking of Dinklage, he's the real horror story of "Underdog." Genetically unable to play camp, Dinklage embarrasses himself as Sinister, hoping to conjure an animated interpretation of cartoon evil, but stopping the movie cold with every wooden moment onscreen.
Offered in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and full screen (1.33:1), the "Underdog" DVD does an impressive job keeping the cartoonish colors and assorted slapstick alive with a vigorous presentation. Colors and fleshtones are stable throughout, along with great special effect clarity.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is an energetic one, taking great delight in the sensorial experience a flying dog offers. Dialogue is crisp, but the star of the show is obviously the sequences of canine heroism, and they give the surround channels a pleasant workout.
A tiny collection of deleted scenes (4 minutes) are assembled here, viewable with intros by a disheveled Du Chau (unshaved in stretched-out t-shirt). There's nothing revelatory here, just needless moments of exposition already covered in the final cut. However, there is entertainment value in watching Du Chau try to sell the excitement of these dispensable moments while looking as though he just spent all night eating Doritos and playing "Halo 3."
A blooper reel (2 minutes) is interesting not only for the chance to watch actors deal with unmotivated animal performers, but also to get a rare glimpse of Jason Lee and Amy Adams in the recording studio blowing lines. Very short, but fun.
"Sit. Stay. Act. Diary of a Dog Actor" (6 minutes) is a tense look at the life of an animal performer, narrated in character by Jason Lee. The featurette also looks at the history of Underdog and the making of the feature film. What's curious about this short infotainment piece is the ability to click an icon and "Dig Deeper" into the subject discussed. Typically, that sort of thing is reserved for longer documentaries.
A music video for "Underdog Raps" by Kyle Massey (3 minutes) is included here, providing further proof how much the Disney Channel is killing the musical taste of our youth.
"Safe Waif" (5 minutes) is the first episode of the original "Underdog" cartoon. I suppose its inclusion on the DVD was to provoke warm, nostalgic feelings for the character, but all it did was remind me how lackluster the film is.
No theatrical trailer is included, but "sneak peeks" are provided for "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," "The Game Plan," "101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition," "The Aristocats: Special Edition," "Cinderella II: Special Edition," and "Snow Buddies."
Sticking to the basics of Underdog taking to the skies to save humanity, and the film isn't all that bad. Once back on the ground, the picture gets old quick. Like "Garfield," there's no reason for the film to exist at all, but if the producers get a crack at a sequel, let's hope they give the dog a bigger bone to chew on.