Sunday, February 19, 2012

Underdog vs. Marmaduke

Every few years, Hollywood decides that the family-friendly comedy needs a kick in the pants and lets loose a fun-filled romp centered around one main element: a dog. Often a clumsy, lovable oaf or a wily, little rascal, the four-legged protagonist usually spends roughly the first third of the film inadvertently turning the lives of its human companions upside down before events conspire to create a situation that only a little pooch power can resolve. This formula most likely reached its pinnacle with the release of Beethoven in 1992, but that hasn’t kept the studios from sniffing around the food bowl looking for scraps. Inevitably, they came across a cartoon canine and a comic strip hound and gave each its own live-action vehicle.

Underdog (2007), based on the animated television series that ran from 1964 to 1973, features Jason Lee as the voice of the beagle superhero. The original cartoon never explained how or where Underdog came from, but in the film we learn that a run-in with diminutive bad scientist Simon Bar Sinister (played by Peter Dinklage) and his henchman Cad Lacke (Patrick Warburton) results in an unnamed police dog gaining super strength, incredible speed, and the ability to fly and to talk. The dog later  picks up the monicker Shoeshine from ex-police officer Dan Unger (Jim Belushi), who takes him to the home he shares with his son Jack (Alex Neuberger). Along his path to becoming a hero, he tangles with the bully Rottweiler Riff Raff (voice by Emmy-winner Brad Garrett) and meets the fetching ‘Sweet’ Polly Purebred (voice by Academy Award-nominee Amy Adams). In the end, Underdog not only saves Capitol City from Bar Sinister’s clutches, but he also helps to mend the strained relationship between Dan and Jack.

In Marmaduke (2010), based on the comic strip by Brad Anderson, Owen Wilson provides the voice of the Phil and Debbie Winslow’s lumbering Great Dane. The Winslows (played by Lee Pace and Judy Greer) and their children move from Kansas to Orange County, Calif., where Phil’s boss (William H. Macy) tasks him to come up with an ad campaign aimed at getting Petco to agree to carry Bark Organic dog food in its retail stores. Marmaduke befriends a few neighborhood dogs—Mazie (voice by Emma Stone), Raisin (voice by Steve Coogan), and Giuseppe (voice by Christopher Mintz-Plasse)—and butts heads with top dog Bosco (voice by Kiefer Sutherland) and develops a crsuh on Bosco’s girlfriend Jezebel (voice by Fergie). (Other voice talents include George Lopez, Sam Elliot, Marlon Wayans, and Damon Wayans, Jr.) After much hijinks, including a dog surfing competition, Phil gets the Petco contract, Bosco’s authority unravels, and Marmaduke and Mazie become a couple.

Both films make some use of the works that inspired them, though in the case of Marmaduke it’s not much of a stretch to go beyond a one-panel gag strip that’s been around since 1954. (One small change from the comic: Dottie has now become Debbie.) Between the two movies, Underdog has a more bite—watching Shoeshine acclimate to his new powers makes one wish we’d get a chance someday to see what Krypto had to endure. Even with its big name cast, Marmaduke just can’t get beyond an uninspired story, a cliché Southern California setting, and moments of flatulence. In the end, neither outing is likely to make the Top 10 list of even the proudest of dog lovers, but each provides enough giggles for the kids to ensure that the howling will once again return to the box office someday. 

(Images: Underdog theatrical release poster, Walt Disney Productions; Marmaduke theatrical release poster, 20th Century Fox)

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