There's certain pop culture offerings from one's childhood that you never want updated, and those things are different for everyone. In my case, one of those things is "Underdog", the wonderful animated series that ran from 1964-1973 about a superhero pup that always was there to save the day and happened to have a very catchy theme song. When previews for a new live-action adaptation started appearing, I cringed, thinking the film would focus on bathroom humor and slapstick.
The picture starts off with a brief nod to the original cartoon before heading into live-action present day, as Shoeshine (voiced by Jason Lee, sounding throughout as if he's about to say "...And that's me. My name is Earl.") talks about being a pup raised to fight crime since being a pup. However, he's not actually very good: while he thinks he's sniffed out danger in a box at a mayoral conference, when it turns out to be a ham, he's laughed out of the force and into the streets. Unfortunately, he ends up in a lab run by Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage, enjoyable as the villain) and his security guard Cad (Patrick Warburton, doing a live-action version of his Kronk character from "Emperor's New Groove".)
Shoeshine manages to bust out of the labratory, but not before knocking over a batch of chemicals on himself and literally breaking through the door on his way out. After being harassed by a group of stray dogs, he runs into Dan (James Belushi) - another one of the guards at Barsinister's lab - who takes him home to his troubled son, Jack (Alex Neuberger).
Jack initially doesn't want to have anything to do with the pooch, but he gradually warms up to his new pet, especially after he finds out that the dog has superpowers and can talk. After a good half-hour of set-up, the picture finally has Jack suggesting that Shoeshine go out and stop the city's bad guys, including Cad and Barsinister. Unsure of himself after messing up in the past, the pooch - dubbed Underdog - finally decides to head out into the night. Cad and Barsinister, attempting to create another superdog, realize that their former experiment is still out there and try to get it back.
Directed by Frederik Du Chau ("Racing Stripes"), the picture isn't so much a disappointment as disappointingly average. The picture takes too long to get going and the scenes with Jack and his new pet becoming friends are somewhat bland, as was the family drama aspect, which is underdeveloped (the story as a whole seems thin, even at 75 minutes + credits) and overly sappy. However, the film's visual effects work is reasonably good for a smaller-budget picture and the movie manages to be less slapsticky and lowbrow than I'd expected.
Still, while "Underdog" has its moments and isn't as bad as it could have been, the movie still is mostly forgettable fare that feels a little longer than its 82 minutes.
VIDEO: "Underdog" is presented by Disney in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame. The anamorphic widescreen presentation was actually very good, with sharpness and detail that remain mostly first-rate, with only a couple of slightly softer spots. Some slight edge enhancement was spotted in a few scenes, but the film otherwise looked clean and clear, with no print flaws or other issues. Colors remained bright and well-saturated, with no smearing.
SOUND: "Underdog" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack remained reasonably entertaining for a kids film, with moderate use of the surrounds during the film's few action moments. Otherwise, the audio was mostly spread across the front soundstage.
EXTRAS: We get the "Underdog Raps" music video (Oh, the horrors. Seriously, I can take having a so-so movie made of "Underdog", but an awful rap version of the classic theme? No. Just no.) We also get bloopers, three deleted scenes, the first episode of the original cartoon and a featurette on the making of the film from Underdog's perspective.
Final Thoughts: "Underdog" isn't the disappointment I expected, but the film does remain disappointingly average, as it takes too long to get going, the story seems a little padded even at 82 minutes and I wonder if Jason Lee was the best choice to voice the title character. There are a few moments here that work - largely the ones with Warburton and Dinklage - but much of the rest is forgettable. The DVD presentation offers fine audio/video quality and a few minor supplements. Families interested should rent first.
The Film C+