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MOVIE REVIEW

'Underdog' barks up the wrong tree

August 06, 2007|Sam Adams | Special to The Times

Faster than a speeding car, more powerful than an off-leash law, able to shatter a mailman's glasses with a single bark, Underdog is a formidable defender of life, liberty and the pursuit of fire hydrants. In the form of a frisky beagle named Leo, he also turns out to be a talented actor, at least compared with the hapless humans who surround him in the pointless live-action version of the 1960s and '70s cartoon.

Created by a trio of ad men to sell General Mills products, the original "Underdog" cartoons were charmingly slapdash. With their mustache-twirling villains, swooning heroines and shaggy-dog plots, they pay fond, tongue-in-cheek tribute to the movie serials of days past.

Director Frederik Du Chau's big-screen "Underdog" has all of the cartoons' crudeness and none of their charm. It's the celluloid equivalent of sugary cereal: cheap, empty and headache- inducing.

Shamelessly cribbing from its superhero predecessors (most frequently "Superman"), this version of the tale has Underdog (enthusiastically voiced in the traditional rhyming couplets by Jason Lee) fighting crime while his alter ego, the mild-mannered house pet Shoeshine, tries to reconcile a widowed security guard (James Belushi) and his teenage son (Alex Neuberger). In the opposite corner are the nefarious Dr. Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) and his frosty-haired henchman, Cad (Patrick Warburton), backed by a trio of snarling German shepherds.

The ensuing concatenation of evil schemes and soppy reconciliations is too disjointed to follow and too dull to recount. Considering the simplicity of its basic plot -- bad guy menaces city, hero overcomes faults to defeat him -- "Underdog" is impressively incoherent. It's as if large chunks of the movie had been sliced out at random (although every last shot of a human standing slack-jawed while Underdog does something implausible seems to have made the cut).

"Underdog" has a few bright spots. Dinklage milks the part of the megalomaniacal Barsinister for all it's worth, creating the only character who feels at home in this cartoonish world. Once the creepiness of the computer-generated imagery used to animate the canine actors' mouths has worn off, the flirtation between Shoeshine and the comely spaniel Polly Purebred (voiced by Amy Adams) has a few moments of genuine sweetness.

But the movie's sloppiness is galling, especially given its target audience. It's one thing to feed grown-ups junk and another to serve it to consumers too young to know they're being had.

"Underdog." MPAA rating: PG for rude humor, mild language and action. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. In general release.

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