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Movie Review: Underdog

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Underdog is the latest in a long line of cartoons, comics, old movies, and old television properties to get remade, re-imagined, or translated to the big screen. More often than not these films are not terribly good, or are accused of straying to far from the original, or sticking too rigidly to the original, or some other such nonsense. I am not the kind of person who will dismiss these movies out of hand, though some will frighten me going in.

I did not have that baggage going into Underdog. Yes, I know that it was a cartoon series, and I believe that I may have seen some of the episodes in my youth, but if I did, they did not make a strong impression on this viewer. Not to say they are or aren't good, I just don't have a strong connection to or recollection of the guy. I went into this hoping to have a little family-oriented fun; I mean honestly, how can you go wrong with a superhero beagle? Well, the result turned out to be a mixed bag that fell slightly to the positive side.

Underdog plays out much like the first two Superman films (Christopher Reeve version) with a dash of X-Men's Wolverine with regards to his origin and interactions with friends and foes. I know the pup predates the metal-clawed anti-hero, but the comparison remains slightly relevant. The bad part of that is that it is all condensed into a film whose running time fails to clear the 90 minute mark. This means that the origin, his coming out as a hero, and his first battle with his archenemy is compressed into a length that does not permit any room to breathe. Like any movie that has a pretty big story to tell, any type of narrative compression is going to have a negative effect on the final movie. That is no different here.

Yes, Underdog is geared for the younger set, but that does not mean that they should be treated like they can't pay attention. I don't have children, so I may be off there, but I like to think that kids can be presented a complete story that runs north of 90 minutes and still hold their attention. Anyway, my point is that we get Underdog's origin story, teaming with his human counterpart, and sent off into a battle with a mad scientist with the city at stake in such short order that your head will spin. When the credits start rolling, you will be thinking: "That's it?" It's barely begun. Now they either have a ton of footage left over for the inevitable DVD special edition, or they are hoping for it to be a big enough success to warrant a sequel. Or perhaps both.

The story starts with our hero at the dawn of what is sure to be an illustrious career as a police dog, one which backfires, leaving the pup on the streets. In short order, he is snatched up to be used as experimental fodder in the experiments of a real life mad scientist. Our unnamed beagle is about to become the latest test subject for Dr. Simon Barsinister's experiments in genetic manipulation when instincts kick in and he escapes, but not without being doused with a DNA cocktail which will set his destiny into motion.

His escape leads him to a police officer turned security guard who takes a shine and thinks that by bringing the dog home, he will be able to open up a dialogue with his surly teenaged son. The plan initially backfires, but then the dog, now named Shoeshine, develops his powers. The story takes on the quality of a boy-and-his-dog tale, as they work to fight crime and figure out how to keep it a secret.

Meanwhile, a disgraced Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), and his intellectually stunted henchman, Cad (Patrick Warburton), set up a new shop and set out to reclaim their heroic creation. Secrets are brought out into the open, and a heroic new age dawns.

It is a fun story that the kids will enjoy, and likely be left wanting more. Adults in the audience with fond memories of the hero will likely be wondering what happened to their childhood. It is not a complete loss, though; if the story leaves something to be desired, it is buoyed by a couple of notable performances.

The voice acting is fine with Jason Lee providing the best work as Underdog/Shoeshine. There is something about his easy delivery that fits the role. Alex Neuberger, who plays the surly young Jack provides adequate human support for our top billed canine, while his dad, played by Jim Belushi, feels like a wasted opportunity. Then there is the evil genius pairing of Dinklage and Warburton. Peter Dinklage is always great to see, and he really takes a hold of Barsinister and creates a memorable madman, while the bleached Patrick Warburton is perfect as the vocabulary challenged muscle of the team.

Bottom line. The movie is not a complete success, not by a long shot, but it is also not terrible. It is a middle of the ground youngster pleaser. The effects are pretty good, the story could use some fleshing out, amd the performances are fun for the most part. It is a good choice for family entertainment, so long as you keep expectations low.

Mildly Recommended.

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