An abandoned dog learns to not rely on humans in Oh Seong-yun and Lee Chun-baek’s animated adventure.
“Your owner is you. Just you.”
If you asked me whether I was a cat or dog person, I would invariably tell you with much enthusiasm that I’m a big dog lover, despite never having had any. So whenever I see a piece of media about man’s best friend, you bet I’ll click on it or at least make an effort to check it out. Screened at this year’s London Korean Film Festivsl, Underdog immediately caught my attention for that reason, and also as the follow-up feature to Oh Seong-yun’s record-breaking first animated feature Leafie: A Hen Into the Wild. The main dog of our story is Moong-chi, who is an … oh boy. Listen, I’m very bad at identifying dog breeds but will have to make a guess that he’s a border collie. Let me know if I’m wrong.
Anyway, before the credits even roll Moong-chi is abandoned by his owner in the middle of the mountains, not far from a rundown town. Before long he meets a group of other abandoned dogs, led by shih-tzu Jjang-a. As he’s adjusting to his new life of scrounging for scraps, he encounters a group of wild dogs – including the jet-black and no-nonsense Ba-mi, whom he will inevitably fall in love with. After some shenanigans, the groups realise that they need to find a better place to live: a fabled land of boundless terrain, food and – best of all – no humans.
The opening few minutes thankfully don’t prophesise the rest of the film’s tone. Despite its first couple of bleak scenes, things start to get more optimistic once Moong-chi acclimates himself to his new life and finds a new purpose in the quest to find this magical human-free place. In other properties, this might come across like a clash of styles but much like in Leafie, director Oh Seong-yun (and co-director Lee Chun-baek) is able to wring truth from those scenes, which only helps to emphasise the moments of levity and adventure.
I honestly don’t know what to make of the art style though. At times, I found the 2D-style CGI convincing and well animated and other times … well … I’m not entirely sure they should have included humans in this picture. It’s one thing if animals move a bit strangely, but humans immediately veer into uncanny valley territory and Korean soldiers in the scene where they’re all chasing Moong-chi around the DMZ barriers look less like real people and more like soulless corpse puppets reanimated by their cruel necromancer master. The dog hunter is spared this indignity, thankfully, thanks to his purposefully unpleasant appearance.
In terms of animal animation, once the dogs start talking and acting human the filmmakers thankfully made the smart decision to retain many of the doggy traits that so often go away in films like this. They still bark when they have to, sniff at random objects and get distracted by non-important phenomena. Little details like that help keep the talking animal movie grounded in some sort of reality. Though it does give us the occasional style clash when we see them fend off dog catchers using Home Alone methods and wrestling moves. The German Shepherd’s main form of attack is to swing on a vine and kick opponents in the face. You know, like a dog would do.
I did really like the unrefined, almost watercolour-style backgrounds. The sketchy greys of the slums of the lush greens of the mountains make for an excellent visual contrast and make the sometimes janky foreground stuff less obvious. Not that any of that is particularly bad, mind you and Underdog’s young target demographic certainly won’t find any of what I mentioned to be particularly noticeable. It’s a solid family feature, with a varied cast of funny characters and goofy moments for the kids and an occasionally tense, well-paced plot and occasional mature theme for parents.
It’s hard not to like Underdog. I found the majority of the characters very enjoyable to watch, and they were written to be genuinely interesting, if a little stock for my tastes. But there’s plenty of excitement to be had throughout, and far as an animated adventure film about dogs go, it’s surprisingly well thought-out. I was surprised how many moments of genuine danger and excitement were present in the film. It’s a good watch for kids who don’t mind subs (although there is a dubbed version, I believe), and – more importantly – it won’t bore the adults who choose to see it with them. Compared to Leafie, I think that one looked a lot nicer (the smooth 2D wins hands-down), but Underdog was overall a lot more engaging. It might be a dog’s life, but sometimes that ain’t all that bad.
Verdict: While it’s not the most beautiful animated film out there, Underdog makes up for it with a fun adventure romp and some cute doggy shenanigans
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 5/10 – considering it’s a kids’ film, that is.
Dog hunter: Those mines sure came out of nowhere didn’t they?
Leafie in-jokes: One. Well, two. They didn’t need to point out where the otter came from
English title: Clearly there to capitalise on A Dog’s Purpose.
Bong-ji: So he’s just dead, right? He wasn’t in a cage during the prison break.
Cutest dog: To-ri, though Jjang-ah is adorable in his own way
Also known as: 언더독( Eondeodog), A Dog’s Courage
Directors: Lee Chun-baek, Oh Seong-yun
Writer: Oh Seong-yun
Do Kyung-soo – Moong-chi
Park So-dam – Ba-mi
Park Cheol-min – Jjang-ah
Lee Jun-hyuk – Hunter
Jeon Sook-kyung – Ari
Yeon Ji-won – Tari
Kang Seok – Gae-ko
Park Joong-geum – Cari
Tak Won-jung – Bong-ji