ZERO STARS/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Jim Belushi, Peter Dinklage, John Slattery, Patrick Warburton
screenplay by Adam Rifkin and Joe Piscatella & Craig A. Williams
directed by Frederik Du Chau
by Bill Chambers Whereas the gigantic Underdog balloon that hovers over New York City during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is at least conceptually interesting (American commerce's idea of a Stalin statue), Underdog, Disney's charmless live-action resurrection of the beloved super-mutt, has no subtext, just a bunch of mercenary actors and technicians who can barely disguise their contempt for the film's screenplay, which lazily embellishes the extraordinary-pet genre with scatology while weaving a maddeningly derelict patchwork of recycled tropes like the grieving widower/orphan, the unattainable hottie, and the disgraced cop. It's fair to say I hate Underdog, but I hate it because it doesn't even have the will to finish what it starts. Only two things about it are kind of fascinating, and only then from a largely extratextual standpoint. The first is that in taking the title character out of the cartoon realm, the digitally-manipulated slapstick pratfalls and clumsy landings look grotesquely painful for the beagle(s) playing Underdog. They should've gone the Scooby-Doo route and fashioned a 3-D likeness of the 2-D prototype, since the sight of man's best friend hurtling through panes of glass really has no intrinsic comic value.
The second thing is the casting of the normally-reliable Peter Dinklage as Underdog's creator/archnemesis Dr. Barsinister, whose presence, like that of Michael Clarke Duncan in Daredevil, creates an elephant in the room that becomes a rather palpable distraction. Putting aside that Dinklage's line-readings are simply too intense (he actually makes you appreciate Jim Belushi's breezy indifference to the material), he's also tasked with denying his short stature in a role that ironically called for someone of his size. But while the animated Dr. Barsinister may have had a Napoleon complex something fierce, he was exactly that: animated; relatively speaking, he was on equal footing with his rivals. Just as Underdog loses his charm by being made flesh and blood, so, too, does Barsinister suffer from the questions raised by his alter ego's cartoonish ambitions. Such as: Why is he wasting his super serum on dogs when, as we see late in the picture, it has a transformative effect on him as well? This sudden ability to soar past the limits of human potential would be a moment of liberation for anyone but especially for a little person, whose life is a near constant and often humiliating quest for merely the same privileges afforded people of average height. It's a powerful fantasy squandered in Underdog on the clichéd, lowbrow image of a crazed dwarf.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Underdog arrives on Blu-ray in a handsome 2.35:1, 1080p transfer from Disney. Some cinnamon skin tones aside, David Eggby's rote cinematography could scarcely ask for a more ideal platform; the image nicely retains the film's celluloid structure, wearing a light coat of grain like a badge of honour. A 5.1 soundmix comes in Dolby Digital and PCM uncompressed flavours, and though I can't speak for the latter, the former is sufficiently punchy. Uniformly presented in HD, extras include "Sit. Stay Act: The Diary of a Dog Actor", a making-of featurette complete with its own 'white rabbit' branching feature (here called "Dig Deeper") that runs 15 mins. in toto. Its best moment is a snippet of a self-flagellating Amy Adams recording her Polly Purebred dialogue, if for no other reason than that Adams is a megawatt beacon in this pitch-black void. Next, six deleted/extended scenes with optional intros from director Frederik Du Chau (who sort of looks like a dopey Eric Bana) are mostly unnoteworthy save a meet-cute between the tweener lovebirds that Du Chau deemed redundant. In the context of every other movie ever made, yes, but of this one? Not so much.
Skip the 2-minute blooper reel and stay far the hell away from the music video for Kyle Massey's hip hop rendition of the "Underdog" theme, leaving just the two vintage "Underdog" shorts ("Safe Waif" and "Simon Says," both from 1964), which Disney has thoughtfully remastered in 1080i while retaining the cartoon's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Despite their washed-out colours and speckled source prints, these look great--and more importantly still play well enough to shame the companion feature; Jason Lee's hoarse voice compares particularly unfavourably to that of OG Underdog Wally Lamb. (For what it's worth, the standard DVD drops "Simon Says.") HD trailers for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Game Plan, and, most tantalizingly, Sleeping Beauty (with which Disney will begin their classic-animation rollout on Blu-ray) cue up on startup. Originally published: January 3, 2008.