Growing up, my favourite cartoon was Underdog. I watched it loyally when it was on Saturday morning and later when it was in syndication. And I was apparently not alone in my love of the cartoon. The show ran nine years on the networks (NBC and CBS) and then went on to a highly successful syndication run. Arguably, it was one of the most successful Saturday morning cartoons of all time, and remains a fond memory of many a late Baby Boomer and early Gen Xer.
For those of you who are too young to remember Underdog or simply have never heard of it, the show was essentially a funny animal parody of Superman. In reality Underdog was humble, lovable Shoeshine Boy (his name was the same as his occupation). When trouble arose, he would rush to the nearest phone booth and change into Underdog. Like Superman, Underdog could fly, had enormous strength, and was invulnerable to most weapons. Unlike Superman, his powers depended entirely on a "super energy vitamin pills," which he stored in a ring on his finger. And also quite unlike Superman, Underdog was extremely clumsy. It was not unusual for him to fly into buildings, flagpoles, and so on. The closest thing Underdog had to a girlfriend was Sweet Polly Purebread, an anthropomorphic dog like himself who was also a TV reporter. She was always falling into the clutches of some villain, from whom Underdog would have to save her. Underdog's archnemesis was Simon Barsinister, a balding mad scientist based on Lionel Barrymore. His second deadliest enemy was Riff Raff, an anthropomorphic wolf who was also a gangster. Created by Joe Harris (the same man who gave us the Trix Rabbit), Underdog was written in such way that adults could appreciate it as well as children.
It should be obvious that I love Underdog. It is for that reason that I am very unhappy that there is a live action movie based (and I used that term very loosely here) on the classic cartoon. The live action movie is being produced by Spyglass Entertainment and Classic Media and being distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. It is set for an August 3, 2007 release date. Sadly, it bears about as much resemblance to the cartoon as the Scooby-Doo cartoons resemble Underdog. To wit, the movie's plot centres on a dog named Shoeshine who gains superpowers through an experiment gone wrong conducted by Simon Barsinister. Shoeshine is in love with a cocker spaniel named Polly Purebread and befriended (initial reports I saw said "adopted") by a boy. Both Underdog and Polly are being played by real dogs with CGI enhancements.
To say I am not pleased would be an understatement. First, it is clear that the movie will bear very little resemblance to the cartoon. The real Underdog was an anthropomorphic dog who existed in a world where anthropomorphic animals were on an equal standing to human beings. He gained his powers through a super energy vitamin pill, not a lab accident. Polly was not only an anthropomorphic dog, but a TV news reporter. The movie then bears very little resemblance to the TV show, so little that I have to question that it can truly be said to be "based" on it at all. Indeed, the dog playing Shoeshine (and hence Underdog) doesn't even look like the Underdog of the cartoon in the least. And though he is stated to be a beagle, he doesn't look like a beagle to me (he's too big, for one thing). For that matter, "Underdog" doesn't sound like, well, Underdog (in the cartoon Wally Cox would drop his voice a full octave for the hero...). About the only thing Underdog the Movie has in common with the original TV show is a villain called Simon Barsinister (played by Peter Dinklage, who I think probably looks like Simon, provided he is bald in the part).
I rather suspect that Underdog the Movie will be one of the big flops of the summer season. I would actually be surprised if it breaks the top five on its first weekend. Indeed, I wonder for whom they are even making the movie. The film bears so little resemblance to the TV show that adults who remember it fondly will probably not go see it. Indeed, a lot of us are actually incensed at the whole idea behind this movie. As to children, I don't think Underdog carries enough name recognition with kids today for them to be the least bit eager to see the movie. It would seem to me that the movie then effectively has no target audience. It makes me wonder, why they decided to use a concept so far from the original? Why didn't they simply call it "Fido the Wonder Dog?" It sure isn't Underdog.
At any rate, I think a better choice would have been a big budget animated feature based on the TV series, maybe even a computer generated cartoon (as in Pixar). If they had done that they could have developed a concept that is much more loyal to the show and would not alienate every single Underdog fan in the process. Regardless, I am hoping that one good thing might come out of all this. Perhaps they will finally release Underdog uncut, season by season, on DVD, as as they have with Rocky and Bullwinkle. Now that could be worth even a movie that is going to be as bad as this one....