HIP! HIP! HIP! AND AWAY I GO! THE ORIGINS OF UNDERDOG
"Look up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a frog." With those whimsical words, the world was introduced to the floppy-eared, flying dynamo known as Underdog. True to his persona, he came onto the scene in the most humble of ways, as a simply drawn, flesh-colored cartoon character who became an unexpected run-away hit. But, for an entire generation, the haplessly heroic Underdog also became something far more - forever associated with the boundless joy of Saturday mornings in your PJs and a world where even the most humble and hang-dog of canines could become a grand hero who regularly manages to save the day.
The birth of the cartoon series began in 1960 when Buck Biggers, an account executive at the New York ad agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, teamed up with fellow ad-man Chet Stover and illustrator Joe Harris to create animated television shows to help sell breakfast cereals for their big client, General Mills. The team would go on to bring to television a whole roster of memorable characters, including Tennessee Tuxedo and King Leonardo, but their most enduring character was the mild-mannered mutt who would become known worldwide as Underdog - the one hero who truly spoke for the little guy.
The series debuted on NBC in October of 1964 and ran for almost a decade, charming both children and adults with 121 episodes through 1973. Audiences fell in love with the unlikely hero who, called into action by his girlfriend Polly Purebred, would leap into a phone booth and change into a "pup of steel" in order to battle the evil plots of Dr. Simon Barsinister and the underworld boss Riff Raff.
The popularity of the "Underdog" cartoon series took nearly everyone by surprise. He soon became the first cartoon character to ever grace the ultra-sophisticated cover of the New Yorker magazine. And even when the episodes came to an end, Underdog's appeal endured. Underdog's snappy catchphrases - including "When Polly's in trouble, I'm not slow. So it's hip! hip! hip! and away I go!" and "There's no need to fear, Underdog is here!" -- became part of everyday conversation.
In 1965, Underdog made his first appearance in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and quickly became a fan favorite and one of the most popular symbols of the beloved parade. (So popular, in fact, that a classic episode of the sitcom "Friends" features the Underdog balloon breaking free during the Macy's Parade and flying away!) The instantly recognizable image of Underdog has also spread through the popular culture, with the character appearing in ads for Visa Check Cards.
The Underdog theme song -- written by W. Watts Biggers, Treadwell D. Covington, Joseph B. Harris and Chester A. Stover, and filled with such memorable lines as "speed of lightning/roar of thunder/fighting all who rob or plunder/Underdog!" -- was as big a sensation as Underdog himself and has also endured, getting updated treatments recently on the hit show "Scrubs" with Ted Buckland's band, The Blanks. Bringing the song full circle in UNDERDOG is a fresh version from multi-talented teen star Kyle Massey, star of the popular Disney Channel hit "Cory In The House."
FROM 60S CARTOON TO 21ST CENTURY FILM HERO: UNDERDOG IS BACK!
By the time the 21st century rolled around, it seemed that today's tough world was in dire need of Underdog's return. At Classic Media, an Entertainment Rights group company based in New York that owns the rights to Underdog as well as whole array of classic pop-culture characters including Lassie, Mr. Magoo, The Lone Ranger and Boris & Natasha, the feeling was that Underdog, with his willingness to always try no matter how overwhelming the odds, was an especially resonant hero for our times. So they were excited to team up with producer Jay Polstein of Maverick Films to finally give Underdog a silver screen debut. Polstein and Classic Media then approached the producing team at Spyglass Entertainment with the opportunity to adapt the adventure-comedy classic in a whole new way.
Their idea was to bring Underdog to a new generation of family filmgoers in a modern adventure that would also pay homage to his humble beginnings.
"So many of us remember the cartoon fondly," notes Spyglass's Roger Birnbaum, "which combined two things people will always love - dogs and superheroes - so it felt like a natural. But the question was: how do you re-imagine Underdog here and now? Ultimately, we took the source material, with all its great characters, and turned it into a movie that we imagine as the prequel to the UNDERDOG story."
From the beginning, both Classic Media and Spyglass agreed that a new look at UNDERDOG would mean taking the character beyond the limitations of the cartoon realm into flesh-and-fur reality. The notion of telling the story with real, live dogs sparked the creative team's imaginations. "We saw the chance to appeal to every dog lover's fantasy that their pet can actually communicate, that their dog actually understands what's going on in the world and is a superhero who can save the day," says Spyglass' Jonathan Glickman.
"There are some wonderful underlying emotional themes that the movie hangs on," adds Glickman. "It's truly an 'underdog story,' about a small dog who starts out believing that he is a failure but along the way he discovers that he is actually worthy of greatness."
With a screenplay that spotlighted the comedy inherent to UNDERDOG, along with a very contemporary story of family, Spyglass brought the project to Disney. "We always knew that the greatest thing we could do was to combine the fun of UNDERDOG with the wonderful family brand of Walt Disney," explains Spyglass's Gary Barber.
Now the search was on for the right director - someone who could bring a fittingly waggish sense of style to Underdog's life in Capitol City. It soon became apparent that Frederik Du Chau, a native of Belgium who began his career as a storyboard artist for legendary cartoon animator Chuck Jones and recently directed the animal-filled comedy "Racing Stripes," was a great match for the material. He arrived with an obvious passion for the characters of UNDERDOG - but also a vision for bringing them into the future. Ready to create a reality-based world for UNDERDOG from the ground up, Du Chau brought to his very first meeting with the producers a series of detailed storyboards he'd already drawn in a flurry of inspiration. He even came prepared with some original conceptions not yet in the script--including the sequence that would later become Underdog's accident-prone "first flight."
Says executive producer Todd Arnow of Du Chau: "Frederik's a really creative guy. He brought with him a very strong, smart sense of both animation and live-action. He's very nimble and able to change on a dime and when you're working with animals and children that is a real gift."
For his part, Du Chau was thrilled to take on the challenge of updating the iconic character. "It was always important to me that this UNDERDOG be based in reality," he says of his vision for the film. "I wanted it to have the feeling of a contemporary superhero adventure but with the comedy of the Underdog character - that was the tone I was after. I knew it would be a lot more exciting and comical for the audience to see a real dog flying as opposed to an animated dog with perfect poise that acts like a cartoon."
In order to achieve this, Du Chau presided over a team of accomplished film artists whose work creatively combined old-school, physical effects and stunts with today's state-of-the-art visual effects. He also worked closely with highly regarded animal coordinator Boone Narr to create exciting dog action and detailed dog expression, all under the supervision of American Humane Association, which assured the utmost safety for both the animals and the actors.
While he was still preparing his storyboards, Du Chau visited Narr's ranch in Southern California to learn the full extent of what trained dogs could and couldn't accomplish. Armed with this knowledge, and a new appreciation for the grit and determination of canine actors, he created his storyboards. Executive Producer Todd Arnow comments, "Boone had dogs doing things that I just never thought I would see. I think they will really amaze audiences."
Using real dogs allowed Du Chau to create a far more visceral experience, bringing audiences for the first time inside Underdog's canine crime-fighting world. The director explains: "We've created a situation where the audience gets to discover, along with Underdog, that he has super scent and hearing, can run really fast, fly and smash through walls. It's a lot of fun."
But before all these elements could be brought together in the film's action-packed production, the next step would be casting the humans who make this tale of a canine superhero more true to life.
UNDERDOG'S HUMAN CAST
The Voices Behind The Bark
The enduring affection for Underdog as a character drew a lot of the actors to this new UNDERDOG adventure - both to voice the canine characters and to portray Capitol City's human citizens and villains. Naturally, the first order of business was the quest to find an actor who could bring Underdog to life. Those who grew up with the cartoon fondly recall the milquetoast voice of actor Wally Cox, who made the character so endearingly funny - and the filmmakers of the new UNDERDOG wanted someone of equal flair, but with his own unique style.
The search ended with Golden Globe-nominated Jason Lee, one of today's most popular comic talents who broke out in the indie films of Kevin Smith and stars in the acclaimed NBC comedy series "My Name Is Earl" as the hapless crook who decides to right all the wrongs he has inflicted on the world. Lee has also made his mark in animation, voicing the role of the villain Syndrome in the Academy Award® winning DisneyPixar blockbuster "The Incredibles."
Lee didn't hesitate for a second. "Like most people my age, I was a big fan of the cartoon and I love doing voice work," he says. But he did have to spend some time working out just the right approach to refreshing a character so beloved. "This film is inspired by the original cartoon but it's really its own modern take on the story. So, ultimately, I just set out to be me - knowing that part of the appeal would be that my voice is coming out of something that isn't me, and playing with that idea."
He continues: "Part of what sets Underdog apart is that he has this very clumsy, likable quality, until he becomes a superhero, reluctantly taking on responsibility. It's a case of someone ordinary becoming extraordinary. So finding the inflections, the energy, the rhythm and the pace for his transformation was a lot of fun."
Lee also had a blast with the romantic tension between Shoeshine/Underdog and the alluring but seemingly unattainable Polly Purebred. "He's out of his league with Polly," admits Lee, "so he's always trying to be very suave with her. He's putting on this bravado but it's still innocent and charming and I think that's why we like him so much."
Playing against Lee as the voice of Polly Purebred is Academy Award® nominee Amy Adams, who won widespread critical acclaim in the dramatic comedy "Junebug" and was recently seen in the hit comedy "Talladega Nights." Like Lee, she was a stand-out winner in the casting process. "She was a real inspiration," says Glickman. In fact, when we started recording, she took her hair down, which is normally up, and the look matched our dog's ears. An unanticipated coincidence, but it turned out to be a great thing."
It was the script that drew Adams' interest. "I absolutely fell in love with the dogs and with Polly and the way they made her more modern. I always like playing sassy girls," she laughs. "Polly is very feisty and not afraid to say what she thinks. She craves adventure, but she is absolutely hard to get."
As a dog owner herself, Adams loved getting the chance to explore what a dog might say - if she was granted a voice. "I guess you could say Polly just wants the freedom to be her own dog," observes Adams. "To prepare further, I not only watched my own dog, I also went to Central Park and watched some Cavalier King Charles Spaniels to get a better sense of their personalities. What's fun about this movie is that the dogs are presented with a mix of realistic dog behavior and very human emotions."
Also joining the voice cast as the canine villain Riff Raff, is Brad Garrett, known for his hang-dog role on "Everybody Loves Raymond" as well as his voice work on such DisneyPixar animated films as "Finding Nemo" and the recent hit "Ratatouille."
The Unger Family
While the extraordinary hijinx of Underdog brings superhero adventure to the film, it is the ordinary Unger family, who adopt Shoeshine the Beagle, who provide the story's heart. To play Dan Unger, the widowed father who works as a security guard in the building where Barsinister conducts his shady experiments, the filmmakers knew they needed an actor who could traverse from comedy to drama in a heartbeat. Known for the wit and believability he brings to the role of a family man on his hit television series "According to Jim," and a long-time dog-lover, Jim Belushi was the first choice.
"When I heard about the new UNDERDOG, I kind of got a joyous feeling connecting me back to my youth," says Belushi. "The original cartoon provided hours of entertainment and when I read the script, I thought it was really well written. It's an incredible journey for children and adults. It's got action but it's also got great relationships, between a father and son; between a girl dog and boy dog; and of course between people and dogs, which this movie really captures. And since we all feel like underdogs at some point in our life, it's great to see this Underdog win."
It also helped that Belushi, who has his own German Shepherd named Truly Scrumptious, is very experienced working with actors of the furry persuasion. "I've done three movies with dogs, including 'K-9' and I just love working with animals," he says. "They are so in the moment. No matter how well-rehearsed you are, when you are in a scene with a dog, you have to let it all go and be present, and that's when the magic happens." Animal Coordinator Boone Narr saw a lot of that magic with Belushi.
"Sometimes you get actors who are standoffish with dogs but Belushi was always pushing it, even in the scenes when the German Shepherds with super powers are right in his face," he says.
To play Dan Unger's son, Jack, whose life is forever changed when he discovers his pet dog is actually a world-saving crime-fighter, the filmmakers decided to take a chance on a new, young star: Alex Neuberger in only his second film role. They were especially impressed with the 14 year-old's ability to not only display a wide range of emotions but to play straight man to a hilarious dog as well.
Despite his youth, Neuberger had seen the cartoon on television, but he was primarily attracted by the script. "It was really action-packed," he says. He was also intrigued by the character, who he notes is quite different from himself. "His mom died and his dad gave up his job as a cop and Jack's pretty down when the story starts, until he meets Underdog. Of course that's another big difference between us -- Jack has a pet dog, and I don't," Neuberger explains.
There were initial concerns over how Neuberger might handle his numerous scenes with rambunctious pups - but he proved to be a natural animal handler. "The trainers had me feed the dogs and train the dogs every day, so I developed a great relationship with Leo," he says.
Starring as Jack's love interest Molly (a relationship that parallel's the courtship between their dogs, Underdog and Polly Purebred) is up-and-coming star Taylor Momsen. The 14 year-old's already impressive range of roles includes co-starring as Cindylou Who opposite Jim Carrey in Ron Howard's "Dr. Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and as Mel Gibson's daughter in "We Were Soldiers."
Momsen learned about the original Underdog cartoons from her dad, who had grown up with them. But when she read the script, she took a liking to Molly, who is one of the most popular and richest girls at Jack's school. Momsen was attracted Molly's determination and sense of adventure and enjoyed portraying the sophisticated, rich girl's polished demeanor. "I had to constantly remind myself how important etiquette is to her because she is such a proper and conservative girl."
Rounding out the human cast of UNDERDOG is a cadre of supporting actors including: noted stage and television star John Slattery ("Desperate Housewives," "Jack and Bobby"), who plays Capitol City's beleaguered Mayor; Samantha Bee, the sole female correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," as Jack and Molly's school principal; and Susie Castillo, host of MTV's wildly popular "TRL (Total Request Live)" and a former Miss USA, who plays Capitol City's ubiquitous News Reporter, always on the scene to report the amazing and mysterious appearances of Underdog.
The Mad Scientist
And then there are the humans who actually play humans in UNDERDOG. At the center of the human cast is the diabolical nemesis of Underdog: Simon Barsinister, the brilliant but definitely mad scientist whose mind and body are disfigured when an experiment goes awry. It is Barsinister who ultimately creates Underdog - and must face him in a climactic battle. To play the role, the filmmakers recruited Peter Dinklage, who garnered international attention for his groundbreaking role in the indie comedy-drama "The Station Agent" and went on to win acclaim in the hit comedy "Elf" with Will Ferrell.
Dinklage was another big fan of the cartoon series and found playing the dastardly Barsinister a happy challenge. "This character is a lot of fun," he says. "The beauty of Barsinister is that he is defined in every scene by his huge ego. The same running joke you find with the James Bond or Batman villains is true for Simon Barsinister, because he is constantly trying to convince everybody of his genius."
Dinklage also enjoyed the fact that Barsinister isn't so much outright evil as dangerously over-ambitious. "He's very misunderstood - he really just wants to create a better world and take society to new heights," he explains. Still, Dinklage, an animal lover, admits it wasn't easy playing a man willing to exploit animals to reach his goals. "I'm obsessed with dogs," he admits, "so it was very hard for me to be menacing towards them."
Creating a classic comedy pairing of villains with Dinklage is Patrick Warburton as Barsinister's dimwitted henchman Cad. Warburton, the versatile actor best known for his recurring role as Elaine's boyfriend Puddy on "Seinfeld" and an animation veteran who lends his voice to such hit shows as "Family Guy," provided the perfect foil to Dinklage with their wild contrasting sizes and equally deft skill at uproarious physical comedy.
Warburton notes that he even has a karmic link to the famous canine, "Underdog and I were born the same year," he points out, "so I basically grew up with him." But it was the heartfelt and fun re-imagining of the story that impressed Warburton. "I think the writers created a timeless fantasy because everyone remembers their first dog and how exciting and special that experience is. In this story, Jack has a dog that's literally a superhero, which is what he really needs in his life," Warburton continues. "I thought the story was fun but also had a lot of heart."
READ MORE ABOUT: GOING TO THE DOGS: UNDERDOG'S STELLAR CANINE CAST; LOOK UP IN THE SKY: MAKING UNDERDOG FLY; THE DIRECTOR, WRITERS AND ANIMAL CO-ORDINATOR
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