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Underdog's beagle hero is a no-name average police dog used to sniff out bombs and other dangers—until his weak sniffer pinpoints ... a ham in city hall. Laughed at by the other dogs, he finds himself wandering the streets. Then he gets nabbed to be used as the subject of DNA experiments in the lab of mad scientist Simon Barsinister.
The beagle doesn't like the looks of a gigantic needle that the doc swings in his direction, however, and creates a real mess trying to escape. The lab is destroyed, but not before the dog is doused with experimental chemicals. Evil Barsinister is left scarred and limping from the destruction, but the canine runs away with superpowers, including the ability to speak and fly.
After a bumper-denting accident, cop-turned-security guard Dan Unger takes the pup in, names him Shoeshine Boy, and gives him to his son Jack. Father and son have been at odds with each other since Mom died and Dan hopes the new pet will help change things. When Jack learns that Shoeshine can talk and fly, things change indeed. Dog and boy become fast friends and start working on the creation of a new hero to fight crime in Capitol City. A superhero known as (drum roll, please) Underdog!
When Shoeshine/Underdog realizes the extent of his heightened abilities, he decides—with Jack's encouragement—to use his powers to help people. We see him thwart thieves, save school children in danger and even rescue a cat from a burning building. (Now that's selflessness!) Eventually, Underdog gives up his powers to save Jack and Dan. And Dan is willing to put himself in danger to save the city from Barsinister. Underdog says that we each have a hero inside of us.
After Dan stops to pick up Shoeshine (he thinks the dog is injured), the beagle says, "I may not be able to smell a bomb, but I can smell a good person." Shoeshine also encourages Jack to reconcile with his dad. It's good advice. Dan is a good dad who works hard to connect with his son. And Jack eventually tells his dad why he's been so angry, and the two bind each other's emotional wounds.
Barsinister's henchman, Cad, says he thinks of his body as a "Buddhist temple."
Shoeshine speaks of "making his move" on cute-girl-dog-down-the-street Polly Purebred. He says, "I'll use my front paws and drag my butt on the ground. Chicks dig that." Polly pines over Underdog, saying, "Could you imagine me off leash with Underdog? There's not a hose cold enough to break that up."
She gets her wish, by the way. Underdog asks for a date, and he suggests that he and Polly should "be bad dogs." When he comes home the next morning and Jack asks him where he's been all night, he says, "I don't sniff and tell."
Shoeshine makes a joke about mistaking a boy dog for a girl dog. A big dog taunts Shoeshine by telling Polly to "give me a sniff" if she ever wants a real dog.
The same kind of violence found in the original Underdog cartoon appears here. But since it's live-action, it looks and feels quite different. Seeing a rudimentary drawing of a guy smash into a lamppost doesn't seem very extreme. But watching Underdog drag Cad at high speed through the city, smashing his face and body against and through nearly every obstacle imaginable ... well, that hurts a bit.
Trashcan lids, metal ladders, a cannonball (to the groin), a giant sword, a shield and chunks of masonry all serve as weapons. Pretty much anyone who's anybody crashes through a wall or window as some point. A burglar falls from the side of a building and crashes down onto the hood of a car. Barsinister is nearly crushed under falling/exploding equipment. A hired hoodlum gets smashed down on top of a glass jewelry case.
Additionally, Underdog's propensity for "bad landings" produces any number of crash-bam-boom accidents. Furniture, windows, doors, phone booths and walls of buildings are all smashed or broken through by Underdog. An explosion is so strong it blows the canine hero into outer space. And once, it appears that he's finally hit the ground too hard and has died. (He hasn't really, of course.)
Crude or Profane Language
Characters exclaim "gosh," "oh god," "ye gods" and "holy moly!" Putdowns include "imbecile," "freak," "creep," "idiot" and "runt." It's never actually said, of course, but a sly nod to the s-word also makes it into the script.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Barsinister is experimenting with a number of different chemicals and fluids. They spill on Shoeshine and transform him into Underdog. Later the scientist creates pills that contain Underdog's super-powered DNA, takes one himself and feeds others to three large dogs. He also gives Underdog a pill to make him a normal beagle again.
Dan jams a syringe filled with some chemical into Barsinister's shoulder. Cad sets up a bomb that will spread chemicals all across the city.
Other Negative Elements
Jack forges a doctor's note to get out of school. (It's implied that he does so often.) Underdog steals a hot dog and a doggie bag full of food. A mail carrier rudely gives Shoeshine lip ("You want a piece of this!?").
Bodily function "humor" includes—but is certainly not limited to—conversations about licking "poop," eating vomit and sniffing "butts."
Whether or not I should have watched as many cartoons as I did when I was a kid is up for debate. What isn't is that one of my favorite parts of the fall TV season was finding out the new Saturday morning lineup. Each weekend I'd plop down in front of the TV, pajama-clad, with a bowl of cereal in tow, for some cartoon relief from the week's reading, writing and 'rithmetic.
One of my perennial favorites was Underdog, which featured an accident-prone shoe-shining beagle who, with the aid of a power pill, would become an accident-prone superhero beagle. It was created to help promote the very General Mills cereal that I was busy shoveling into my yap. But it was also full of superhero satire that earned fans nationwide.
So with a nasal-sounding memory of, "There's no need to fear, Underdog is here!" in my head, and a taste of Wheaties in my mouth, I went to see what Disney would do with the canine concept. This Underdog has shed his simple animated skin and become a live-action pup with CGI-aided mouth and paw movements. And it's kind of fun. For the first five or six minutes.
Then you realize that Underdog has also lost just about everything that made his original version entertaining and endearing. What's left is a lackluster flick about talking animals, featuring a pooper-scooper full of weak jokes—many of them about ... poop. "If we're going for a walk, you may want to bring a poop bag. I've got that special feeling," this reimagined superbeagle informs his owner. "You're like Superman ... with a flea collar," Jack shoots back.
When Underdog isn't lapping its humor out of a white porcelain bowl, it's chewing on plastic sentiment. The relational gap between Jack and his dad narrows because of their talking and flying pet, but their conflict really never feels like much more than an emotional squeaky toy tossed in for some Disney "heart."
Firehouse Dog. The Shaggy Dog. Cats & Dogs. Good Boy! Quigley: An Angelic Tail. The recent movie past is liberally littered with disappointing doggie dishes. And now Underdog has been forced to join their ranks. So much for my sweet memories of Saturday mornings.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jason Lee as the voice of Underdog/Shoeshine Boy; James Belushi as Dan Unger; Alex Neuberger as Jack Unger; Taylor Momsen as Molly; Peter Dinklage as Dr. Simon Barsinister; Patrick Warburton as Cad
Frederik Du Chau ( Racing Stripes)