I’m sure the folks at Disney had some target audience in mind when they opted to turn the quaint cheese of the old Underdog cartoon show into this wrong-headed theatrical mess that bears the same name; I just can’t figure out who that target audience might be. Easily amused 5-year-olds is my best guess. They certainly didn’t aim for baby boomers who grew up on the cartoon, since they’ll find precious little about this big-screen incarnation to remind them of the show.
The original Underdog hit TV in 1964 courtesy of W. Watts Biggers, who had already given us such nonclassic—but now nostalgia-tinged—fare as Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales (1963) and King Leonardo (1960). In spirit, Underdog was more related to Jay Ward’s Rocky and His Friends (1959) and its successor The Bullwinkle Show (1961). Ward’s shows were at the time the last word in postmodern (without that term actually being used) cartoon humor, making sport of fairy-tale conventions and often inserting esoteric pop-culture jokes into the proceedings. Underdog came across as kind of postmodern-lite on a lower budget and a lower intellectual plain. In the words of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter, it had a certain naive charm.
The new cinematic Underdog, on the other hand, has only creative bankruptcy and no charm whatsoever. The crudely drawn cartoon figures have been replaced with live-action characters. The original’s mild Superman parody featuring the “humble and lovable” Shoeshine Boy (voiced by the inimitable Wally Cox) who would nip into a phone booth to transform into Underdog at the onset of trouble is nowhere to be found here. Instead, we’re given a real dog (there’s a gag in there, but I’m not low enough to pursue it) with self-esteem issues who gains superpowers through a lab accident when he escapes from the clutches of Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent) in the middle of one of the mad scientist’s incomprehensible experiments. This also affords the dog a human voice (Jason Lee) and CGI-mouth movements, which are only slightly more believable than the cartoon ones on the camels in Road to Morocco (1942) and a whole lot creepier.
Having eschewed the whole anthropomorphic approach, the film dives into pretty pointless boy-and-his-dog territory by fixing our four-legged friend up with adolescent Jack (Alex Neuberger, Running Scared), who—what a shock—has daddy issues. (As with the dog’s self-esteem woes, this is apparently supposed to give the film meaning, so that it contains those valuable life lessons that intrude on most kiddie fare.) Jack dubs the beast Shoeshine, and, for no reason other than the fact that people with talking animals always do this, keeps the canine’s unusual loquacity a secret. There’s a silly romance for Shoeshine with a spaniel named Polly (voiced by Amy Adams, Junebug) in honor of the original Underdog‘s Sweet Polly Purebred, and a pointless adolescent crush for Jack with a girl named Molly (Taylor Momsen, Spy Kids 2).
The bulk of the plot involves Dr. Barsinister trying to get Shoeshine back for his own nefarious purposes in a manner that recalls (why would you want to?) the recent Tim Allen-ified Shaggy Dog (2006). It’s all dull and stupid and, worst of all, amazingly unfunny. It doesn’t help that both the script and Peter Dinklage insist on playing Dr. Barsinster in the most humorless (even just plain ill-tempered) manner possible. It is, however, exactly the movie you’d expect from the director of Racing Stripes (2005), Frederik Du Chau, and the writer of Zoom (2006), Adam Rifkin. And it’s better than this week’s other youth-market fare, Bratz, but then so is being smacked in the face with a sock full of tepid Cream of Wheat. Rated PG for rude humor, mild language and action.