Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The director of Underdog is named Frederik Du Chau, which I can’t help pronouncing “Du Chow.” It’s hard to imagine there’s any name more linguistically suited to the job, but I spent most of the movie wracking my brain to come up with one. Akita Kurosawa? Spike Lee? William Rott-Wyler? I gave a lot of thought to the issue because it seemed more interesting than anything onscreen. However, I can report that my restive 4-year-old, who was in agony during the overrated Ratatouille, was modestly enthralled as he sat through Underdog, for the simple reason that it mates his first pleasure—dogs—with his second—crashing into things. The pleasures will be more mixed for adults, particularly those who recall the Saturday-morning cartoon original from the ’60s and ’70s, a piece of light-fingered whimsy in which the “humble, lovable” canine known as Shoeshine Boy (voiced by ur-geek Wally Cox) ducked into a phone booth and emerged as a couplet-spouting crusader. How little we demanded of entertainment in those days: some action, some romance, a bit of seltzer down the pants. How innocent it all seems alongside the CGI-embellished overkill of Disney’s live-action 2007 model, which, among other exercises in overthinking, feels compelled to explain its hero’s genesis. The new version of the canine (voiced by Jason Lee) is Shoeshine, an out-of-work police bomb-sniffer accidentally given superpowers by mad scientist Simon Barsinister (a slumming Peter Dinklage). As for his civilian name, well, it seems the dog likes to lick shoes. And it seems the boy who adopts him (Alex Neuberger) likes to root for underdogs. And it seems the boy’s dad (Jim Belushi) has an old varsity sweater that, when put in the dryer, makes a great doggie cape. Explanations are soon swept aside in the rush to get Underdog zipping through the troposphere, smacking down German shepherds, digging massive holes and, um, crashing into things. Whether this constitutes progress over the decidedly more humble and lovable original is a matter of taste, but we can take comfort in the remake’s more finely tuned sensitivities, not just rendering “Shoeshine Boy” as “Shoeshine” but turning the distinctly Aryan-sounding “Polly Purebred” into simply “Polly.” That coarsening of pedigree enables her to claim the film’s most ribald line, a paean to her apparently unneutered boyfriend: “There isn’t a hose cold enough to break us up.”