Call it the Baby Geniuses rule: Whenever an infant's motor functions are taken over by computer effects, a precious piece of its humanity (and ours) is stripped away. The same rule more or less applies to movies about dogs: The more CGI is used to "assist" a perfectly healthy pooch into doing things it can't do naturally, the lousier the movie inevitably turns out to be. By that measure, the new Disney live-action version of Underdog ranks as one of the worst films of its kind ever made. An update on the '60s cartoon hero—initially created by General Mills to sell breakfast cereal, until it found a life of its own—this plucky beagle was originally intended as a canine parody of Superman, but the parody part doesn't really apply here, unless the humor is so subtle that only a dog can hear it. Whatever the intent, the result is unfit for humankind.
Unlike Superman, Underdog (voiced by Jason Lee) doesn't come across his powers naturally. A failure as a bomb-sniffing police dog, he lands in a secret animal-testing lab run by the diabolical Peter Dinklage, who's using stray dogs to perform Dr. Moreau-like experiments with DNA serums. When a BALCO-sized shot of DNA crashes down on the beagle, he transforms into an indestructible hero with all Superman's basic powers, plus a facility for rhyming couplets and sniffing cocker spaniels' butts. Widowed security guard James Belushi adopts the dog as a companion for his surly teen son (Alex Neuberger), but before long, Dinklage and his bruiser sidekick (Patrick Warburton) come after Underdog as part of a plan to take over the city.
The charm of the original TV series was that it compensated for its crude design with verbal wit and clever plotting, with a look and tone similar to The Adventures Of Bullwinkle & Rocky. The live-action Underdog gets it completely reversed: The effects are slick, but the low-key humor and self-deprecating tone have been replaced by Lee's sub-Garfield wisecracks and the most generic world-domination plot imaginable. Earlier in the year, Firehouse Dog offered up such obscenities as a mutt that could skateboard and operate a PlayStation controller, but it now looks like Umberto D. in comparison. When a dog has been so radically transformed that it ceases to resemble a dog, can it still be loved?