Where (oh where) are Tennessee Tuxedo and Phineas J. Whoopie when we need them?
Viewers who grew up watching Underdog on television in the 1960s and '70s probably best remember the beloved cartoon canine as part of a broader lineup that included the likes of Klondike Kat, Go Go Gophers, and Commander McBragg. Underdog was a star among toons, but even his creators seemed to understand he was the thinnest of reluctant-superhero concepts, best consumed in small doses and surrounded by friends.
Unfortunately, none of that stopped Underdog from getting his own movie.
Directed by Frederick Du Chau ("Racing Stripes"), the big-screen "Underdog" arrives as a live-action feature with
Like "The Flintstones" and "Garfield" before it, "Underdog" attempts to reinvent its cartoon inspiration by lifting it into a quasi-real-world setting with flesh-and-blood characters. The superhero is played by a beagle named Leo, and his love interest, Polly (as in Purebred), is played by a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Ginger. They are voiced by Jason Lee and Amy Adams, who do what they can with disposable dialogue provided by screenwriters Adam Rifkin, Joe Piscatella, and Craig A. Williams. Purists will miss the voice of Wally Cox, who made the TV Underdog's silly rhyming pronouncements memorable, but good luck to any purists still hanging around after the first pointlessly amped-up notes of the classic opening theme song. Nothing in the ensuing story rocks as hard, fur-flying special effects included.
In the movie tale, the beagle takes on super powers when he's involved in a lab accident that riles his nemesis, Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), who cooks up revenge with the help of henchman Cad (Patrick Warburton). The pooch gets taken in and given the name Shoeshine by a widowed security guard (Jim Belushi) with a distant teenage son (Alex Neuberger) who can hear the dog talk. Boy and dog become allies, and pretty soon both are embracing their heroic side.
Cue the costume-choosing scene, wherein Shoeshine first tries out a bee suit and other ill-fitting alter egos before going with sweater, cape . . . Underdog! Rest assured, there is no superhero cliche left unchewed; they even manage to slide in a "Lady and the Tramp" homage while they're at it.
The film does manage one spark of genius: Providence stands in for the cartoon's fictional city setting. Where else would a triumphant underdog live?