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The best parts are saved for fans of the old TV show; the rest is the stuff of usual mediocre family films.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A super-powered talking beagle is out to save the city from crime and evil villains in the amiable, family action-comedy Underdog. Another one of those live-action talking-animal films (which is practically becoming its own genre), this one seems better than average, if only because of its cartoon-superhero roots.

Based on the 1960s’ and ’70s’ TV cartoon of the same name, Underdog is really half kids’ movie and half superhero movie. Rejected as a police dog, a loveable beagle (voice of Jason Lee) is taken in by a down-on-his-luck former cop (James Belushi) and his alienated son (Alex Neuberger). But not before the dog is zapped by some high-powered genetic chemicals that give him not only your usual superhero powers of super-strength and flight but also the ability to talk. Perhaps this talking thing is a more convenient plot device than superpower; nevertheless this now genetically gifted dog takes on the name of Underdog, and like other superheroes of a similar ilk, he heeds cries for help and foils crime after crime. All the while, mad scientist Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) and his assistant Cad (Patrick Warburton), the very men responsible for Underdog’s powers, endanger the city. It’s up to you know who to save the day.

The best parts of Underdog are saved for fans of the old TV show. Indeed, there are references galore to the old show: Riff Raff, an updated version of the song, an opening featuring the old cartoon, a guy claiming Underdog is a frog (“a frog?”). Plus, as in any good first installment of a superhero movie, we see how Underdog came to be: how he came up with his catch phrase, why he wears a red sweater, how he met Polly Purebred. Nary a stone is unturned for those Gen X-ers familiar with the cartoon reruns, who now have kids of their own.

The rest of the film is the stuff of usual mediocre family films: sappy subplot of dog helping family sort out problems, comedy heavily reliant on slapstick and poop jokes and not-so-special effects. It’s like director Frederik Du Chau (Racing Stripes) is working from the family-film director’s manual. Meanwhile, Jim Belushi seems to be walking through this movie as if he has just awakened from a night of partying. Perhaps Underdog should have figured out a way to save his owner from zero charisma.

Fair family action-comedy • PG • 84 mins.


© Walt Disney Pixar

Trying to earn a merit badge for helping the elderly, Russell, voiced by Jordan Nagai, tags along with Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Edward Asner, on an adventure that drops them in the jungles of South America.

Great in any dimension: Thrills are had, laughs are laughed, tears are shed and lessons are learned.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

An old man and a young boy go on an amazing journey thanks to a house attached to inflatable balloons in the poignant and wildly entertaining animated adventure Up. Pixar has done it again, extending its string of not just excellent animated movies but quite simply some of the best movies being made today, period.

Carl Fredrickson (voice of Ed Asner) is an elderly man who has lived in the same house for most of his adult life. Instead of giving in to the modernization and changes all around him, he launches his house into the air by tying it to an inordinate amount of helium balloons. Along for the ride is overweight Boy Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who is trying to earn his merit badge for helping the elderly. They land their ballooned house in the jungles of South America. There, they … well, there they meet adventure.

It’s the gift of great storytelling and attention to detail that makes this movie — and so many of the Pixar movies — so exceptional. Most impressive of all is a magical five-minute vignette near the beginning of the film that introduces us to the character of Carl. His life is movingly told without one word of dialogue. (In my theater, filled with children, you could’ve heard a pin drop near the end of the sequence.) Not unlike last year’s Pixar hit WALL*E, this sequence captures the best of silent films and puts that into a very modern animated film. The simple fact that moviemaking is first and foremost telling a story through images seems to be the overarching rule at Pixar.

Up’s inventiveness never stops giving us new things to enjoy, no matter how big or how small. Example 1: Our adventure hero is an honest-to-goodness senior citizen, neither hiding his age nor limited by it (even if some of his heroic feats would be impossible even for the most athletic of James Bonds). Example 2: An invention for dogs that would dramatically alter the world in which we live.

Ultimately, this is a fantasy adventure that makes little logical sense but tons of emotional and intellectual sense. I saw it in 3-D, but this movie is great in any dimension. Thrills are had, laughs are laughed, tears are shed and lessons are learned. Some day the geniuses at Pixar have to flop. But for now, it seems like they have nowhere to go but up.

Great animated adventure • PG • 90 mins.

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