“Underdog” basically has three quaint, manageable target audiences with three sets of quaint, manageable “demands” in terms of enjoying it: Nostalgiac fans of the original 60s cartoon show, who’re mainly there to see whats been left and whats been lost in the adaptation; small children who are mainly there to see a flying beagle wearing a cape; and folks looking to see a funny, family-friendly new comedy who’ve already seen everything else. All three should find themselves entertained, though Group #3 may find themselves frequently restless once they realize that the stew is pretty thin outside of “Awww, he can fly!” and “Hey, that’s from the show!” In other words, while quite short of a classic, it’s probably the best movie you can make out of “Underdog” and still have it be ABOUT Underdog.
The cartoon, a General Mills funded cheapie superhero-spoof featured Shoeshine Boy, one of three inexplicably anthromorphic dogs (heroine Sweet Polly Purebred and gangster Riff-Raff being the other two) in an otherwise human world. When his city fell under attack by villians, most-often mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister, Shoeshine donned a Superman-inspired costume and dropped a power-granting Super Energy Pill to become the superhero Underdog, who spoke all of his dialogue in rhyme.
In the new film, Shoeshine (voice of Jason Lee) is a beagle pup who, after coming up short on his dream to become part of the police department’s elite squad of bomb sniffing dogs, finds himself abducted by egomaniacal scientist Simon Bar Sinister (Peter Dinklage.) Bar Sinister aims to use Shoeshine as fodder for the creation of genetically-engineered Super Dogs he can then sell to the (apparently canine-fixated) police force, but the pup escapes – causing an accident that blows Sinister up along with his lab… and leaves Shoeshine with ramped-up senses, the ability to speak to humans and a healthy assortment of standard-issue Super Powers. Adopted by the son of an ex-cop (Jim Belushi,) Shoeshine is encouraged to put his powers to good use: Fighting crime as the costumed hero Underdog. Unfortunately, Bar Sinister has survived as well, scarred and driven to (greater) madness by the accident and thirsting for city-wide revenge. Oldschool fans, take note: The rhymes are here, along with Polly’s “where oh where can my Underdog be?” and, surprisingly, even a variation on the Super Energy Pill (an element famously censored from 70s/80s reruns due to ludicrous complaints that it encouraged drug abuse.)
It’s a lightweight affair, as befits the material. The filmmakers are accutely aware that they have a winning central visual in the personage of a flying, cape-clad beagle going through the now-familiar beats of Superhero bad guy busting, and they’re content to go not much further than that’ll carry them. Imagine Richard Donner’s original “Superman” if Christopher Reeve was a beagle, and you’ve got the movie. It shows telltale signs of having been drastically cut for time, with too many plot points being advanced by Lee’s voiceover narration, but when it’s settled into The Stuff We Came For, i.e. the mandatory 2nd act crimefighting montage, the puppy-love spoof of “Superman’s” famous date-with-Lois sequence and the Final Battle with Simon, it’s piched EXACTLY where it needs to be. If you can’t smile at seeing a superhero-costumed beagle stop an out-of-control car – rear bumper clenched in it’s jaws, asphalt flying up in a wave as he digs in his heels – from hitting a busload of schoolkids, I don’t want to know what happened to make you so cold.
By far the most (okay, only) genuinely intriguing element of note is Dinklage’s turn as Simon Bar Sinister. Dinklage, a tremendously-talented character actor best known for “The Station Agent,” is a dwarf and, thus, so is Simon. However, were you to watch the film with you’re eyes closed the entire time the matter of the villian’s physical size would be entirely unknown to you: It never comes up. Not once. There are no short jokes, no physical gags or even broad references to Mr. Dinklage’s size, and the camera typically approaches him either on his own eye-level or from an intimidation-increasing low angle – never in a downshot that would accenuate his stature. No one in the film even brings it up, not even a single “oh, didn’t see you there” bit. He’s a straight-on mad scientist supervillian, and Dinklage seems to be enjoying playing a full-bore baddie; especially in his just-freakish-enough post-accident makeup which I can attest scared the SHIT out of the younger kids in the theater.
It’s a fun turn from an actor who, let’s face it, isn’t often presented with broad, showy material like this to work from; and it’s the first time I can remember seeing Dinklage or any other little-person actor in a role that didn’t seem to think the audience required a constant reminder of their size. “Underdog” isn’t exactly one for the ages, but it at least deserves it’s due credit in this regard. Well done.