WALT DISNEY PICTURES’ NEW FILM “UNDERDOG”
SAVES THE DAY—LITERALLY—FOR LUCKY RESCUES
For generations of fans, the phrase “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!” signaled a colorful and fun-filled trip into the world of a loveable and mild-mannered dog who had the ability to transform himself into a crime-fighting canine superhero whenever dastardly deeds were afoot in Capitol City. Thanks to Walt Disney Pictures’ upcoming live-action comedy-adventure—and the film’s veteran animal coordinator, Boone Narr of Boone’s Animals for Hollywood—UNDERDOG opened the kennel doors for several lucky dogs, giving them the opportunity to go from rescue and shelter animals to working Hollywood actors and beloved house pets.
In classic Hollywood fashion -- where stories of instant stardom are legendary -- when it came time to cast the canine stars of UNDERDOG the filmmakers felt that the film’s canine performers could be anywhere just waiting ‘to be discovered.’ Thus director Frederik Du Chau and animal coordinator Boone Narr decided to scout hundreds of pounds, rescue societies, breeders and dog parks to find just the right pooches. But Narr is quick to point out, “Animals that make movie stars are kind of like people—not everyone can be a star. Some people are suited to being in front of a camera and some should be behind it. It takes a special kind of individual to be a star. Its hard work and a tough job, but our ‘stars’ love their jobs. Something special happens when the cameras roll—they’re happy to be doing what they do, and that shows up on film.”
When looking to cast the iconic title character himself -- a dog whose specific breed was never revealed in the original cartoon -- the filmmakers began by narrowing their wish list down from about 20 different breeds. Narr ultimately decided that a Beagle not only looked a lot like the original animated character, but was also the right size and feel for a live-action ‘every-dog’ who can become a superhero. “I contacted Beagle Buddies, a Beagle rescue agency in Orange County, California. And that’s where I saw a photo of Leo,” recalls Narr. Leo was an abandoned Lemon Beagle (a rare color variation of the long popular breed classified by its light yellow coat…think Snoopy as a blonde!), who had been taken in by Beagle Buddies. His photo showed a mug that a camera could love, but when Narr met his potential star face-to-face he was taken by surprise “It was a bit like a bad blind date because when Leo showed up at my door he looked nothing like the photo! He was overweight and as round as he was long, and he was completely out of control,” laughs Narr. “But to his credit, he had a great little personality and we decided to see if we could whip him into shape.” After Narr put Leo through a stint in doggie training boot camp (part waist-trimming spa, part new-tricks school), he discovered that his casting instincts had been spot-on…and his star had been found.
“Leo’s cantankerous and independent, with an attitude, but when he’s in front of the cameras, his personality just shines. His fearlessness makes him the perfect action hero.” Narr finishes, “Leo has quite the life now: from down-and-out dog to Hollywood star!”
Four other Lemon Beagles—one each from Texas, Oregon, North Carolina and Alaska—were also selected and trained to match Leo. These pups were engaged for running, jumping and other stunt work, while Leo was allowed to rest in order to be ready for his “face work,” or close-ups.
Squaring off against the flying super-Beagle is canine villain Riff Raff, a tough talking guy whose bark may possibly be worse than his bite. For the role of this ‘heavy,’ Narr set about searching numerous city animal shelters where he uncovered three appropriately strapping Rottweilers including his lead performer named Bronco—ultimately taking the trio from a world of cages to a world of casting calls. “It’s not hard to make a Rottwieler look tough, because they already are,” observes Narr. However, contrary to their commanding size and presence (the breed is popular for protection and security work), he also notes that the UNDERDOG Rottweilers were actually the sweetest dogs on the set. “It’s a classic case of the biggest, meanest looking guys having the softest hearts,” he says.
It wasn’t just the Rottweilers who stole the hearts of the UNDERDOG filmmakers and stars, however. In fact, all the dogs made such an impression during filming that many of them were adopted by members of the cast and crew when the production wrapped. Producer Jonathan Glickman adopted one of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels who portrayed Polly, Underdog’s love interest. “When Boone emailed us pictures of Polly, I think it was a case of love at first sight for all of us,” smiles Glickman. Even those rescue and shelter dogs that didn’t go home with members of the crew found new lives, ultimately ending up in Hollywood as members of Narr’s ever-growing ensemble of working animal actors for various film, television and commercial projects.
On the set of UNDERDOG, safety was paramount for people and animals alike, so a representative from the American Humane Association was on-set throughout production. In fact, the AHA was on-board from the beginning, analyzing the script and storyboards to flag any potential trouble spots, with representative Marisa Bellis also present during filming of every single scene that involved an animal. “This movie has been quite a remarkable experience,” she says. “Boone and his trainers have been extraordinary. They’re some of the safest trainers I’ve ever worked with. They don’t take any chances.”
The AHA’s Jone Bouman observes, “One of the reasons I’m so excited about this film is that American Humane is a big believer in the idea that films can be a great tool to show the power of the animal-human bond. UNDERDOG is about a hero dog who positively affects a family. That’s the kind of message we think is outstanding and it got all of our support.”
All in all, some 25 dogs wound up working before the UNDERDOG cameras, with all of them undergoing an intensive, 16-week pre-filming training period under the tutelage of 10 trainers. Narr, who has worked in the business for more than 30 years, was amazed by the talent and skill of this particular cast, from the rescues and the foundlings to the seasoned pros. “I’ve trained dogs before who seemed great, but when they got before the camera, they just froze. But all of the dogs on UNDERDOG just loved performing.”
For Narr—who has trained animals for dozens of films, including all three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, both “Stuart Little”s and “Cats & Dogs”—working on UNDERDOG was a special situation and, quite possibly, the most fun he’s ever had. He closes, “When it comes to working with animals in Hollywood, I’ve done just about everything, but you really can’t beat a flying dog!”
And when that dog—along with some of his on-screen buddies—gets the chance to fly out of a shelter or rescue society and into a permanent and loving environment, it’s a win/win situation for everyone concerned.
NEXT: UNDERDOG TIMELINE
1960 Buck Biggers, an account executive at the New York City-based advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, teams up with Chet Stover and illustrator Joe Harris to create Underdog...