Underdog

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Underdog
"The backgrounds are beautiful, showing off the Korean countryside at its finest, but it's the story that really drives the film."

Underdog is one of those children's films that will break your heart and have your little ones in tears within just five minutes. Moong-chi thinks he's going on an adventure. His humans are arguing over the phone, but the meaning of t is lost on him. When they arrive in an exciting outdoor space surrounded by trees, the human who's with him, whom he's known since he was a tiny puppy, takes off his electric shock collar and produces a huge bag of dog food. Then he throws Moon-chi's favourite ball a really long way. It's only after running to retrieve it that our hero hears the car starting up and realises with horror what is happening - his human is leaving him there. Before long, other dogs arrive and tell him that he shouldn't expect his owner to come back.

The leader of this pack is Jjanga - not the biggest but the most, well, dogmatic. He's hesitant to take on a newcomer as naive as Moong-chi, and perhaps he's right - several mistakes follow which put everyone at risk - but they are thrown together by circumstance as they dodge a mean-faced, motorbike-riding dogcatcher and shelter together in an abandoned building. This isn't really the life Moong-chi wants, though. Even though its members are outcasts, the pack continues to depend on humans, begging and scavenging. Moong-chi wants to learn to hunt and live free in the hills like the wild dogs he has glimpsed for a distance. They are even more reluctant to engage with him, but in the adventure that follows, Moong-chi's wit and determination will change the life of every dog he meets.

As you might expect, there's a degree of cheesiness here, and together with the 2D animation it makes the film feel rather old fashioned, but that's not necessarily a problem. The dogs, who seem to have designed using 3D modelling, are lively and engaging. Their movements are very natural so that even the more obviously cartoonish ones work as characters. The backgrounds are beautiful, showing off the Korean countryside at its finest, but it's the story that really drives the film.

Fortunately for those upset by the prologue, Underdog soon picks up the pace. Moong-chi doesn't waste time longing for his owner, though he does hang onto that ball. He's drawn to the wilderness and the deal is sweetened by a possible love interest in the form of black borzoi Bami, though she has her own independent priorities and a complex personality. The dogs are loyal to each other even when they have disagreements and there are many lessons for children about friendship and being a team player, but they never get in the way of the action. The narrative is rich and wide-ranging and co-directors Oh Sung-yoon and Lee Chun-baek (whose previous film, Leafie: A Hen Into The Wild, gets a plug from one of the dogs) do a good job of approaching the action from a canine point of view. Dog lovers will enjoy the silly scrapes that our heroes get up to as much as the central adventure.

Parents should be aware that there are a few really quite scary scenes here and also a scene dealing with death, which may be an issue for more sensitive young viewers. There's so much happening, however, that most children are unlikely to linger on these moments. The film deals with issues like puppy farming (a big problem in Korea) and the careless purchasing of puppies without thought as to how big they will grow, but it also provides a glimpse of human characters who are doing what they can to help. It touches on issues around abuse and could be a good jumping-off point for age appropriate discussion about these topics where kids would benefit from it, but most young children will probably just drift past these sections without really noticing, just as they will fail to grasp the full implications of the villain's eventual fate.

Underdog is a little OTT in places, but considerably less so than most modern live-action films covering similar ground with human characters. The ending is something you're unlikely to see coming, and is quite magical.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2020
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A pack of abandoned dogs as they navigate the perils imposed by humans in a journey to a fabled people-free haven.

Director: Oh Sung-yoon, Lee Choon-baek

Starring: Do Kyung-soo, Park So-dam, Park Chul-min, Lee Joon-hyuk

Year: 2018

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: South Korea

Festivals:

London Korean 2020

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