Oh Sung-yoon & Lee Chun-baek
Stray dogs join forces and embark on a cross-country adventure in a scenic animated tale of freedom and human apathy
The global animated cinema landscape is so dominated by one particularly famous US-based production company, that regional offerings can slip through the gaps.
Looking to buck that trend is Underdog, which has enlisted the likes of K-Pop star Do Kyung-soo and Parasite’s Park So-dam for voiceover duties in what has been a seven-year labour of love for its creators, who also made hit animated film Leafie, a Hen into the Wild (2011).
The result is an engaging take on the animal adventure story, which is also thematically rich, rifting on freedom, tragedy, bereavement and animal ethics. This means that Underdog has plenty of sadder passages mixed with the more upbeat adventure segments.
Moong-chi (Do Kyung-soo) is a Border Collie dog abandoned in the country by his owners. He then meets a group of likewise stray dogs who beg for food from restaurants and attempt to avoid capture from a motorcycling dog catcher. At first, Moong-chi struggles to imagine life without a human owner, clinging to a tennis ball from his previous owner like a baby with a blanket.
Invoking a range of similar predecessors (Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, The Animals of Farthing Wood etc.), the dogs become convinced that a safe haven for dogs exists in the mountains and a quest for such sunlit uplands begins.
Matters are complicated by the relentless dog catcher (who has a face of genuine evil) and another pack of dogs in the mountains who have already acclimatised to life without a human owner.
The animation mixes 3D characters and 2D backgrounds, a decision that will likely divide some audiences, especially ones who have decided that either traditional or Pixar-style animation approaches are for them.
The nostalgic feel of the hand-drawn cartoons of the past will likely resonate with older viewers, while many young viewers (such as the one with us for this review) will barely find it noteworthy. However, much of the scenery has genuine artistic value and is perhaps the most visually impressive elements of the film.
The film does sometimes slide to almost surrealist places, most notability during a scene where a dog suddenly discovers taekwondo, or when the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is pulled into the story.
It was also chosen to be screened in North Korea as part of the South Korea-North Korea film exchange program, so the DMZ will provide some common scenery for viewers over the border.
There are some decent comedy moments too, including a puppy’s confusion over how a pair of chihuahuas are not the same age as him, or as another domesticated dog tries to find food, believing a reed is a hot dog and some animal dropping are dog food.
The story does have a slightly jarring muddle to its formation at times, but there is enough good will and affable tones throughout to keep a family entertained by this pack of plucky canines and their hair-raising adventure.