Like a near-death experience, I can recall the exact moment when I first watched the trailer for Underdogs. The shabby preview – exchanging comedic pacing and intelligence for celebrity vocals that didn’t match the animation and a stupid premise – almost eclipsed the train wreck that followed it (Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2).
Underdogs then disappeared; as if the distributors realized how atrocious it looked and how much it pandered to kids. The film was shuffled around a release schedule before being yanked away altogether. To my surprise, just the other day, I was told that a children’s movie involving foosball players that come to life to compete against soccer players was a new release on Netflix. I reacted in astonishment and gasped, “wait, Underdogs!?”.
Another surprise occurred when the children’s film revealed that the competition between tiny toys and full-grown professional athletes wasn’t actually the film’s focus. The story eventually leads up to that climactic game but with more patience than one would expect, along with lively action sequences in tow.
When town bully Ace (voiced by Nicholas Hoult) is defeated in a harmless game of foosball against nice-guy Jake (voiced by Matthew Morrison), he holds an unbreakable grudge. Petty Ace becomes rich and famous, and returns to his small town to own and bulldoze it in spite. Devastated, Jake (along with help from his loyal best friend – a foosball team captain brought to life by Jake’s tears) develops a plan to beat his enemy again and save his town alongside his secret love interest Laura (voiced impressively by a diva-downed Ariana Grande).
Y’see? That premise isn’t exactly a walk in the park, and it hardly gets better. With so many story shortcuts, a pointless sub-plot about combining animals with sporting equipment, and those inescapable dubbing issues (the film is an Argentine-Spanish production switching out original voices for famous names and Saturday Night Live regulars), Underdogs has a certain irregularity that makes it hard to completely embrace.
However, Underdogs is a harmless, good-looking film about sportsmanship. Kids and adults will laugh at the many jokes that don’t completely sell out to pop culture references or shallow gags. Voices provided by Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Chazz Palminteri, and John Leguizamo are skillfully disguised, and Glee’s Morrison makes lanky hero Jake a pleasant average Joe to root for.
Underdogs is essentially a second-rate Toy Story, but with more heart than its D-grade trailer is aware of.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie