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 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...