Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Underdog the Movie? No, Not Really....

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....


themarina said...

I wholeheartedly agree. I'm not familiar with the cartoon but the trailer for the film doesn't look particularly interesting however, never under estimate the power of a children's movie.


Bob Dylan said...

I recall Underdog tooksome kind of pills--I bet the dog in the new movie won't be doing that either.

Sheila West said...

" It makes me wonder, why they decided to use a concept so far from the original?"

Remember the recent (five years ago or less) live-action movie called Thunderbirds? You know the one .... that hoaky live action movie about five American adolescent brothers from the wealthy Tracy family who each had a super-charged vehicle for different modes of transportation/combat hidden in an underground fortess? And the movie was based upon .... a serious hyper-reality British marionation series about five fully-adult brothers from the Tracy family who had five super-charged vehicles for different modes of transportation/combat hidden in an underground fortress?

You know that Thunderbirds movie, right? The American movie that was a TOTAL bastardization of the British Thunderbrids TV show??

Sounds like the same producers. Or else the same sad series of events.

How do ANY of these pieces of crap get the greenlight? What exactly IS that sad series of events?

My theory is, they go digging around in old entertainment archives, find something that has an impressive set of numbers attached to it (multiple production years, broad syndication, lots of awards, etc) and via those numbers convince the souless and not-a-creative-bone-in-their-bodies "bean counters" to give them the go-ahead.

And then the dreaded "committee" gets appointed to try and work the magic of the "development" process onto the idea.

So, to answer your question: how did they stray so far from the original?? My answer: Death by committee.

May Underdog rest in peace.

Mercurie said...

Bob, Underdog took "Super Energy Vitamin Pills" in the original cartoon. I understand that in reruns in the late Eighties into the Nineties they cut out the scenes of him taking the pill--apparently another example of political correctness run rampant.

Sheila, I think you're right. This movie sounds precisely like something that a committee would come up with. At any rate, I remember Thunderbirds. That was an old Gerry Anderson, Supermarionation show. Sad to think the movie ruined the concept.

Aaron said...

Preaching to the Saturday Morning Viewers:


A travesty! An Abomination!

I always try to separate film from the in comics and film / book and film as long as they keep the true spirit of the source.

Here they obviously sold out and let Riff Raff (always my favorite villain), Simon BarSinister, Cad, the Over Cat, Bubble Heads win!

Sigh.... in this case they have lost touch with what Underdog is.

"Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Underdog Gone....Oh Where, Oh Where Can He Be?"