Someone needs to send an exorcist over to the Disney Studios, PDQ. The House of Mouse needs a ghostbuster to purge its demonic tendencies toward remaking classic cartoons and other 2D animated properties into shoddy live action spectacles. First there was George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget. Now the glorified product pitchman Underdog falls under the reinterpretation light. Originally conceived by General Mills' ad agency (and its head, W. Watts Biggers) as a way of selling cereal to wee ones, the once noble anthropomorphic pup with the Superman-like powers has been reduced to a post-modern joke where everything's ironic and nothing's endearing.
After he messes up an important training test, failed police dog Shoeshine (with the voice of actor Jason Lee) winds up in the lab of Dr. Simon Barsinister (a perfectly cast Peter Dinklage) and his dopey assistant Cad (a totally out of whack Patrick Warburton). A genetic engineering experiment goes haywire, turning our hound into a hero, and our scientist into a psychopath. On the run, Shoeshine winds up with young Jack Unger (the vacant Alex Neuberger). While he tries to hide his special talents -- especially his ability to talk -- Shoeshine relents, and quickly becomes pals with his new owner. As he settles in for a life of chasing his tail, scratches fleas, and fighting crime, Barsinister will not let such a supremely successful example of his research slip away. He plots to kidnap and capitalize on the newly named Underdog, destroying anyone who intends to stop him.
Thanks to some effective work by Lee and a cute-as-a-button title pooch, Underdog is not as groan-inducingly awful as one would think. Yet when it comes to actual entertainment value, a logical plot, a sense of humor, or an overall ability to keep an adult audience awake, the movie is a mess. It's a disaster disguised as a feel-good bit of fluff, an idea that might have actually worked on its own, but fails when placed up against the original's nascent nostalgia. While it would be impossible to fully realize the unusual universe of the '60s series, Belgian director Frederick Du Chau doesn't even try. Instead, he takes his screenplay by committee and fancies it up with unnecessary schmaltz, misguided performances, and an action movie ending that feels rushed and rather tacked on.
Warburton is the biggest acting atrocity here. He's so over-the-top and hyper that you actually wonder for his sanity some of the time. Equally perplexing is Neuberger, who seems more like a statue than your standard-issue understanding teen. Dinklage isn't given much to do, but he does deliver on Barsinister's pint-sized prickliness. Only Lee manages to make things work, his wise-cracking cur elevating several scenes via line readings alone. It's too bad then that Disney decided to dumb things down so much. Unfortunately, it's par for the course in a town that sees every old idea as something waiting to be deconstructed, reinvented, or reimagined.
Offering its fair share of kid-safe scatological humor (all dog films demand poop jokes -- everyone knows that) and a pseudo-slick man's best friend, Underdog is intent in its conformity to the demands of the fickle feelings of the prepubescent set. Generations who grew up on the courageous canine with Wally Cox's whine do actually have no reason to fear. They won't recognize a single thing in this unnecessary update. Like the title character, the film is not plane nor bird nor even frog. It's not Underdog (or engaging) either.
Faster than a speeding biscuit.