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Monday, August 06, 2007

Underdog

When "Underdog," the tv series, was on back in the mid-1960s my heart already belonged to another hero in a cape, Superman, so I didn’t care much for what I saw as just an ugly knock-off of my beautiful hunky Man of Steel. Okay, so I was maybe ten at the time, but my loins stirred early and even if I didn’t know why I was smitten by the visitor from Krypton, I knew some poorly drawn mongrel wasn’t going to win me over.

So we skip ahead forty (!) years and now the Disney Company of all places has resurrected the little pipsqueak and turned the cartoon Underdog into a full-blown live action big budget movie. I’m sure a huge portion of the budget went to animating the mouths of the various dogs and other animals that “talk” throughout the film a la last year’s hit Charlotte’s Web, but, unlike that movie, this has a more current feel to it rather than the timeless quality Charlotte’s Web aimed to create.

Underdog is a “happening” tail, er, tale, about a beagle who runs away in shame from his job as a police explosives-sniffing dog after a humiliating mistake and is then snatched up by the dimbulb henchman of notorious mad scientist Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage; Ascension Day) for his mysterious DNA experiments. While attempting to escape, the beagle bolts into a bookcase holding hundreds of trays and bottles of chemicals, all of which crash down onto him, creating a waterfall of potential reactions. What does happen, of course, is what Dr. Barsinister could never manage with his precise calculations. Behold! Underdog is born! And Behold Again! Underdog is outta there!

Of course at this point he isn’t really Underdog. He’s just a stray in need of a home, and in no time ex-cop Dan Unger (Jim Belushi; title star of tv’s “According to Jim”) finds him, takes him in, and brings him home to meet his son Jack (Alex Neuberger; Running Scared) in the hope that the beagle will help fill some of the void caused by the death of Jack’s mother. Since that tragedy Dan has felt that he and Jack have grown further and further apart, and so he hopes that maybe a pet would be something they could enjoy together.

At first it looks like a complete bust, but in a short while Jack discovers that the newly named Shoeshine is more
than just any dog. He talks, he flies, he has super hearing, and incredible strength. What happens next is the story you could probably predict in your sleep as the mild-mannered beagle dons a home-made superhero uniform (actually Dan’s old fraternity sweater with the arms cut short) and begins a career cleaning up crime and saving lives (even cats!) to make Capitol City a better place to live.

Naturally, this high visibility alerts Barsinister and his flunky, Cad (Patrick Warburton; Happily N’Ever After), to the realization that
Underdog must be the same animal that escaped from their clutches in the lab, and so they vow to hunt him down and extract his DNA to expand their experiments so that they can find a way to make themselves super-powered as well. Okay, so I suppose asking is just out of the question. Instead, they insist on an elaborate kidnapping scheme that puts Jack, his friend Molly (Taylor Momsen; Paranoid Park) and her adorable doggie Polly Purebred (voiced by Amy Adams; Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) at risk.

I won’t say that
Underdog is brilliant entertainment, but for kids (and kids at heart) it is a whole lot more fun and rewarding than Hot Rod or many of the other summer releases aimed at younger audiences. I went in not expecting much, especially since I remembered the iconic voice of the original actor, Wally Cox, in the title role, and even though I wasn’t a fan of the show I did like Cox and I knew his talents had to have played heavily in the series’ success. Without him and his quirkiness would this Underdog fly? The answer is a resounding yes, thanks to Jason Lee (tv’s “My Name is Earl”). There couldn’t have been a better choice than Lee to put words in the mouth of the brilliant beagle. His voice is funny, sweet, cute, and silly. All the things you’d ever want in a cartoon super-dog.

Do yourself a favor and take your little nippers and canine loving friends to the
Essex Cinemas this week for a dog-gone good time and check out Underdog. You won’t be barking up the wrong tree with this one. It’s a howl!

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