Movie review: 'Underdog' (2018)
Underdog (언더독, trailer) is a South Korean animated film from 2018, written and directed by Oh Sung-yoon at Odoltogi Studio, and co-directed by Lee Chun-baek who previously directed Leafie, A Hen into the Wild.
The main character is Moongchi, a dog who loves and trusts his owners, so he's understandably confused when he's deliberately left behind in the woods. Luckily he soon meets a group of other abandoned dogs who take him in, surviving in an empty slum on the edge of the nearby town.
While his fellow strays beg and scrounge to survive, Moongchi is still figuring things out. Wandering up the mountain into the forest, he meets a small group of wild dogs and wants to impress one of them, a female named Bami. Trouble is brewing for both groups, and soon they must unite and find a new place to live.
One of the strays has an idea of a safe haven, though his memories are extremely vague. Thus begins their journey! Groups of animals going on a travel quest is a familiar story theme (The Incredible Journey, Watership Down, The Animals of Farthing Wood), though in Underdog it doesn't start until halfway into the film.
There are a couple of themes, like the recurring motif of metal fencing. The hope of wanting human ownership is represented by Moongchi's tennis ball, and one of the other dogs has a plush sea otter. The main theme is about the mistreatment of dogs, but the story isn't beating you over the head with a moral message, it's more of a background plot element, and quite tolerable.
In fact the dogs don't have much direct interaction with humans. There are three nice ones, a lot of disinterested or annoyed ones, and a douchebag that I'll call the Dog Hunter. He's a psychopath who makes his living off dogs, treats them terribly, and he's a really effective antagonist.
I have very few complaints about this film! It took me a little while to warm to Moongchi, who doesn't know much about living as a stray nor in the wild, which creates problems for both groups of animals. But stick with him, he's a good dog! A little suspension of disbelief is required for tool use and jumping physics. But that's all small stuff. Really my only big gripe is that you can't track a dog remotely using the microchip in their neck; you'd need a battery-powered GPS device on their collar to do that. And there's a poop joke.
The film is well-animated, and I liked the dogs' body language. Some of them had heads that were a bit big, but I was ok with that. A lot of the characters seem to have been made using 3D models, which were then filtered and colored to give a 2D appearance. This was distracting during a scene when the Dog Hunter was talking to a character who didn't have a 3D model. It's a delicate balance to get 3D and 2D to work together - and I'm happy to say that for the rest of the film, the animators did it! Also, a lot of the forest backgrounds were gorgeous.
Finally, there were a number of little moments that I enjoyed. Moongchi developing into a dog who wants his independence. The two groups of dogs joining together. The stray dogs learning that raw Korean water deer meat is safe to eat. Bami having a heartfelt moment, talking about her traumatic puppyhood, while Moongchi just looks infatuated. And then I was surprised at the dogs' ultimate destination.
Overall I'd rate Underdog a decent 7 out of 10. It was surprisingly difficult to track down a copy! After many unsuccessful attempts, I got lucky with an accidental keyword search and stumbled across an English fansub by Kyungsoo lover and Oaeri12. (Hopefully those links will stay active for a while.) If you like animated films with animals, I think this one has definitely been overlooked, and is worth checking out.