Dir: Frederik Du Chau. US. 2007. 83mins.
With one paw in the comic-book action genre and one in the mawkish family arena, Underdog is a lovable mutt that could have benefited from better breeding. This live-action reinvention of the 1960s cartoon works best when lightly spoofing the conventions of superhero cinema, but the film goes to the dogs thanks to a drab story and frequent stabs at heartwarming bromides.
Opening in the States on August 3, this Walt Disney release looks to corral the pre-teen set. While the film's broad comedy and cute canines will entice little ones, Underdog also hopes to appeal to parents' nostalgia for the original television cartoon about a crime-fighting pooch.
But the film will soon be going head-to-head with next week's Daddy Day Camp, which may hurt both movies' chances of courting the family audience.
Director Frederik Du Chau's last effort was 2005's Racing Stripes, another live-action, talking-animal movie, which grossed a little under $50m domestically. His new film stars Jim Belushi and Peter Dinklage, and features the voice work of Jason Lee, none of whom are major box-office draws.
But unlike America, where at least there remains an awareness of the 1960s cartoon, Underdog could face a chilly reception overseas. Racing Stripes garnered $41m internationally, but the new film's slow trek across the rest of the planet - for instance, it won't reach the UK until next year - will need to rely on children's interest in a mostly unknown commodity featuring unknown entities. If the film should falter in the theatrical market, expect Disney to still recoup its investment through predictably strong family-DVD sales.
A failed police dog (voiced by Lee) is captured by evil scientist Dr. Barsinister (Dinklage). Fleeing Barsinister's animal-experiment lab, the beagle is accidentally exposed to the scientist's test formula that grants him superpowers and the ability to speak to humans.
He is rescued by Dan (Belushi) and his son Jack (Alex Neuberger), who discovers the dog's amazing powers but keeps it secret from his father. Soon, the beagle begins fighting crime under the name of Underdog, but he must defeat Barsinister, who wants to take over the city.
While it has become depressingly common in kids' films for the comedy to involve bodily functions and loud antics, Underdog for the most part doesn't stoop to such lowest-common-denominator humour staples.
Instead, Du Chau parodies the bold valor and melodramatic undertones of typical superhero films by substituting an unassuming, adorable beagle for the rigidly noble characters who usually populate such action-adventures.
Underdog works in clever allusions not just to Superman but also Batman and Spider-Man, highlighting the underlying absurdity of such fantastical tales.
Also refreshing, neither Underdog nor his teenage owner is a smart-aleck full of snide comments. While the film lacks much inspiration, at least it doesn't possess a mean-spirited attitude. Jason Lee's voice work goes a long way toward the movie's amiability. Much as he does on television's My Name Is Earl, he projects a kind-hearted optimism that's nearly impossible to dislike. But the film's pleasant veneer can only take it so far.
The screenplay is credited to Adam Rifkin, who wrote the inventive children's movies Mousehunt and Small Soldiers, and writing team Joe Piscatella and Craig A Williams, who have a television background. In the past, Rifkin's best scripts have managed to entertain young people while being smart and sly enough to engage adults, but Underdog displays little of his previous films' wit, more concerned instead with sentimentality.
Between Dan and Jack's attempts to reconnect as father and son and Jack and Underdog's conversations about what it means to be a hero, the film practically drowns in warm, fuzzy moments marred by Belushi's and Neuberger's milquetoast performances.
Although Dinklage is often superb as the evil scientist, playing the role with a wink so that his malevolence is more mocking than frightening, the script's uninvolving plot feels derivative of a thousand previous films involving mad geniuses. He works well with Patrick Warburton, who plays his dimwitted assistant, but the film-makers haven't given much thought to what these bad guys should be doing during the movie.
While Du Chau's references to other comic-book epics play like satire, the predictability of Underdog's journey and final confrontation feel slavishly indebted to its sources without adding any new wrinkles.
In terms of special effects, the seamless CGI work creates a believable impression that the dogs are speaking and interacting with their human counterparts. And special praise must go to animal coordinator Boone Narr, who has wrangled a collection of canines with plenty of personality.
Walt Disney Pictures
Buena Vista International
Craig A Williams
Story by Joe Piscatella & Craig A Williams and Adam Rifkin