I have nothing against Hollywood's desire to revamp classic animated properties for a fresh generation of kids -- I just don't understand why they're so intent on spitting out live action versions of so many of these old favorites. To be fair, not all are dismal failures, but for every 'Transformers,' there's a 'Scooby Doo,' 'Garfield,' or 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' that leaves me shaking my head. Now we can add 'Underdog' to that rather undistinguished list.
In Capital City, an ordinary beagle named Shoeshine (voiced by Jason Lee) is captured and caged in the strange lab of Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage). When an accident imbues the dog with super strength, he escapes the lab and comes into the possession of a young boy named Jack (Alex Neuberger). As the dog develops the ability to speak, fly, and zoom through the city, Jack convinces him to use his powers to fight injustice. With a red shirt, a white "U," and a blue cape, Shoeshine takes on the moniker "Underdog," and begins jetting around the city to prevent crime at every turn. But as media attention is drawn to Underdog's amazing exploits, Dr. Barsinister becomes jealous of the attention being paid to his accidental creation and plots revenge.
As a parent, I have a unique tolerance for awful kiddie flicks that get my three-year-old son to respond with that big grin of his. Unfortunately, the party ended for ‘Underdog’ at the eleven minute mark when my son climbed off our couch and started playing with his toys. To be honest, his disinterest took me by surprise. After all, he absolutely adored the aforementioned 'Scooby Doo,' 'Garfield,' and 'Alvin and the Chipmunks.' But his sudden boredom made 'Underdog' an even more unbearable experience than it might have been if I’d sat down to watch it alone in the first place.
To make matters worse, fans of the original series won't be pleased to see how much of the cartoon has been lost in translation. The '60s version of "Underdog" was a sly satire of the superhero genre that used simple situations to appeal to kids and subtle humor to rope in adults. The live action film is a brash splash of color and slapstick comedy that doesn't do the character justice. Underdog is no longer an expressive, wise-cracking pup -- he's reduced to a scrawny dog with an underwhelming personality. He may leave collateral damage in his wake like his cartoon counterpart, but he fails to shrug it off with the same spunk and spite that Wally Cox crafted in his version of the mutt. Jason Lee brought passion and authenticity to his portrayal of the outcast villain in 'The Incredibles,' but his Underdog is bland, whiny, and annoying.
The only highlight in the film is Peter Dinklage (‘The Station Agent’). His part is terribly underwritten, but the diminutive actor brings a surprising level of pathos to his villainous role, managing to play every cheap line to its full potential. His deadpan scowl elevates his scenes and makes his character feel like a genuine threat to Underdog's heroics. Sadly, Dinklage's solid performance can't save the film from itself -- he's merely a lone beacon in a very bleak flop.
I'm sure there are kids out there who love 'Underdog' for plenty of sensible, age-appropriate reasons –- your own children's overall enjoyment will really depend on their patience and/or fascination with anthropomorphic crime fighting. Hopefully, your kids will have a better time than my son. Either way, adults and fans of the original show won't find anything to get excited about in this tired regurgitation of a classic cartoon.
Presented with a vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, 'Underdog' certainly has the visuals to match its animated roots. Primaries absolutely pop off the screen -- the palette is packed with stable reds and blues that flood the picture with energy. Blacks are inky, shadow delineation is revealing, and contrast is dead-on. The image is also extremely clean -- I didn't catch any edge enhancement, source noise, or artifacting. Likewise, detail is amazing and left me marveling at the fine textures and sharp edges that populate the transfer. I could see the tiniest stitching in the costumes, every frayed strand of dog hair, and the smallest cracks in the brickwork of each building. For the best 'Underdog' has to offer, simply study the cluttered backgrounds in Dr. Barsinister's lab -- the level of visible detail is a testament to this transfer's integrity.
Still, everything isn't perfect. Skintones are occasionally flushed and a handful of shots are a bit drab compared to the rest of the film. Luckily, these problems are few and far between -- 'Underdog' may not be the greatest of films, but it looks quite good in high-def.
Matching the strong video transfer is a solid PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/24-Bit/6.9 Mbps) that establishes a thoroughly convincing soundfield. Dialogue is centralized, clear, and well-prioritized across the front channels, and I never had problems catching a single line, even in the film’s noisiest scenes. When Underdog zips around the city, pans are swift and transparent -- minor elements like the flapping of his cape, the scrape of his paws, and the shish-shish of his ruffled fur are present and fully accounted for. I was also quite pleased with level of ambience in the surround channels. Rather than reduce the quality of the soundscape to match the tone of the film, the sound designers seem to have placed a lot of effort into making 'Underdog' sound as realistic as possible. Even the whimsical elements of the track (such as the musical score and some of the more exaggerated sound effects) tap into the LFE channel to produce weighty, naturalistic results.
I do have a few issues, but they're all relatively minor. First and foremost, Jason Lee's voicework sounds disjointed compared to the rest of the cast. I can’t say whether this was a conscious choice on the part of the sound designers or a product of Lee's recording sessions, but his voice never feels as if it's coming directly from Underdog's mouth. It doesn't help that the front-heavy lines of the humans don't spread into the surround channels as readily as Underdog's voice. Finally, high-end frequencies tend to waver at times and the track feels fragile when the film isn't blasting action at its audience. Still, most people won't complain –- overall this mix is a fine effort from Disney.
This Blu-ray edition of 'Underdog' includes all of the special features available on the standard DVD and even adds a couple of bonuses (which I'll discuss in the next section), but unfortunately this is another case where a relatively large number or bulletpoints add up to a pretty scant supplemental package.
'Underdog' is aimed squarely at kids -- adults will be bored to tears and fans of the original series will be disappointed by the changes made to the tone of the cartoon. Still, this Blu-ray disc is nothing if not technically impressive, with a vivid video transfer and an involving PCM audio track making this one look and sound great. Worth a rent for parents who think their kids might enjoy this one, but everyone else should stay as far away as possible.