Not unlike its accident-prone superhero, “Underdog” is clumsy, fast-moving and thoroughly inoffensive. Tale of a genetically modified mutt who becomes a canine crime-fighter falls somewhere between stale retread and half-hearted parody of superhero-movie formulas, bearing more of a resemblance to live-action talking-dog fare like “Wishbone” or “Look Who’s Talking Now” than the amusing ’60s toon series on which it’s based. Pic fetched $12 million in its opening frame and may show some traction with the family crowd, but will ultimately best serve parents as an easy DVD distraction for noisy tots in the backseat.
Parents who grew up watching “Underdog” may feel a twinge of nostalgia during the film’s opening sequence, which affectionately revisits the series’ modest, hand-drawn images. Modest, however, doesn’t quite describe the rest of the movie — which, even at a mercifully brief 80 minutes, is the sort of noisy, over-produced affair in line with much recent family-friendly programming.
F/x pyrotechnics begin in earnest when diminutive mad scientist Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) tries to perform tests on a stray dog, only to see his lab go up in flames when the brave beagle puts up a fight. In the process, the dog gets an unexpected infusion of DNA from multiple species and becomes a genetically enhanced superdog of astonishing strength and agility, able to fly as well as communicate with humans.
Latter trait brings “Underdog” into the dubious ranks of animal lip-synching movies, and Jason Lee’s lead voicework, though delivered with an appropriately flea-bitten rasp, is poured on thickly enough to make you wish dumb animals would just stay dumb animals. Pretty soon, Shoeshine (so named for his foot-licking tendencies) is engaging in regular back-and-forth banter with his new master, teenager Jack (Alex Neuberger), who, once the shock has worn off, encourages his pet to put his special abilities to good use.
And so is born Underdog, a reluctant superhero whose mild self-esteem issues are only aggravated by the bullying attentions of a neighborhood stray (voiced by Brad Garrett) and the indifference of the winsome Polly Purebred (Amy Adams). Both issues stem from Shoeshine’s Superman-like refusal to divulge his true identity (the pup-arazzi would have a field day, no doubt).
Routinely conceived and executed pic delivers perfunctory helpings of father-son angst (Jim Belushi plays loving dad to Neuberger’s sullen Jack); a tentative “101 Dalmatians”-esque parallel romance between Jack and Polly’s owner, Molly (Taylor Momsen); a third-act bomb scare courtesy of Barsinister; and some distractingly lame moments courtesy of the latter’s oafish sidekick Cad (Patrick Warburton).
Directed by Frederik Du Chau (who last helmed the 2005 talking-zebra pic “Racing Stripes”) from a workmanlike script by Adam Rifkin and writing partners Joe Piscatella and Craig A. Williams, pic appears to have left most of the TV show’s charming idiosyncrasies intact, such as Underdog’s groan-worthy rhyming schemes (“There’s no need to worry/Underdog is furry!”) or his tendency to fly into buildings — which, in this live-action incarnation, naturally results in a lot of broken glass. At no point does any of this come close to capturing the toon’s droll, shambling spirit, which begs the question of why Disney chose to adapt this particular property for the bigscreen, beyond the studio’s long-held tradition of doggy anthropomorphism.
Tech credits are all they need to be, and airborne-dog shots are appropriately cheesy.