Fans of classic animation may have begun to fear that it may never get here, but “There’s no need to fear … Underdog’s Complete Collector’s Edition is here!” For the first time ever, the complete three-season run of the classic canine superhero is collected in its entirety, and recreated as close to exactly as it was when it aired on NBC starting in 1964.
Underdog was immediately a cultural phenomenon, earning a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade the very next year, and running in syndication until 1973. Underdog is one of those characters that has become a part of the cultural lexicon. People know his name and his battle cry without having ever seen his cartoon. Of course, some people may have seen the [amazon_link id="B000WCBULO" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]2007 Underdog movie[/amazon_link], which wasn’t very good at all. Anyone disappointed with that should definitely give the original a chance. He holds still a lot of the charm and excitement that made him so popular nearly 50 years ago.
Putting together this set was a daunting task, as the shorts and episodes had been recut and shuffled around through all those years of syndication. But Shout! Factory have made quite a name for themselves in the television world for putting together fantastic DVD collections and tributes to classic material. They certainly pulled out all the stops for [amazon_link id="B005SQRYG4" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Underdog: Complete Collector’s Edition[/amazon_link].
The nine-disc set includes every episode in its original airing order, and put back together with the original animated shorts that ran alongside Underdog’s adventures. That includes “Go Go Gophers” and “Commander McBragg” in the first two seasons. When the “Gophers” were given their own series, Underdog picked up two replacement companion shorts in repeats of the shorts “Tooter Turtle” and “Klondike Kat.” Later syndication had combined shorts and cartoons from the Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales series, also created and developed by Total Television to help General Mills sell cereal.
Underdog served two purposes for audiences of the time, providing a replacement cartoon for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, which had just left the air, and serving the audience’s growing passion for superheroics. A fairly straightforward take on the Superman mythology, Underdog had a mild-mannered alter ego, Shoeshine Boy, and even a love interest, Polly Purebred, who just happened to be an intrepid reporter with a nose for getting into trouble. Luckily, Underdog was always there to come to the rescue with his signature penchant for only speaking in rhyme.
The series was littered with fun villains, but like The Powerpuff Girls in more recent years, it settled into familiar heroic patterns and favorite villains. At its core, Underdog was a much more direct children’s cartoon, lacking some of the layers of sophistication of Rocky and Bullwinkle or the Looney Tunes animated shorts. As such, its appeal was more directly toward children — who hopefully eat lots of cereal — and thus the storytelling was far more straightforward. But that doesn’t mean it lacks in clever twists and turns and fun.
While the charm of the stories and the simplicity of the animation has held up in the intervening years, the same can’t be said for the cultural sensitivities portrayed. The “Go Go Gophers” are a pair of very poorly stereotyped Native Americans — though they are far smarter than their white opponents. As for “Commander McBragg,” his stories are simply littered with bad racial stereotypes and offensive visualizations. It’s a testament again to Shout! Factory that they kept these as they aired in the 1960s, a far less enlightened time when it comes to such things. So long as children understand that these cartoons are a product of their times, they can be used to show how far society has evolved from these offensive stereotypes in the intervening years. Beyond that, the stories themselves are still funny — while Underdog played it straight, there is more advanced cleverness in play in those surrounding shorts.
The video and audio transfer on the DVDs is pretty good, despite a warning from Shout! that there will be some inconsistency throughout due to the difficulty in finding quality source material. They’re right, but there aren’t too many noticeable moments where the quality lacks. For a property nearly 50 years old, the quality holds up pretty well. But don’t expect high definition picture or stereo sound. Those things didn’t exist then and they don’t exist on this set now, but that only adds to the nostalgic charm of the experience.
Even more impressive was the bevy of extras Shout! threw in there. There are voice commentaries on ten different animated segments throughout the set featuring key figures from the series. Co-creator W. Watts Biggers, series narrator George S. Irving and producer Treadwell Covington. Current voice actor Wally Wingert and animation historian Mark Arnold round out the voices providing commentary.
One particular treat is “The Nug of Nog,” featuring an interview with co-creator Joe Harris that includes a walk-through of an exclusive and never-before-seen storyboard to a never told Underdog story. The main featurette, “There’s No Need to Fear… Underdog Is Here,” is a more general history of the character and his impact on the 1960s and 1970s featuring interviews with all kinds of surviving writers, voice actors and animators from the series. Mark Arnold provides another invaluable feature that isn’t even on the discs. The accompanying booklet features his comprehensive essay “The History of Underdog,” which is absolutely fascinating reading.
There’s a sense of historical importance and significance in this set finally making its way to DVD. Underdog is too important a character, despite the relatively small number of episodes actually created during his initial three-season run. Not only is Underdog one of the most recognizable and important animated characters of all time, he’s a part of the pop culture identity of America. That it’s taken so long for a proper collection to surface is an injustice to his importance. But with this exhaustive collection, Shout! Factory has definitely made sure it was worth the wait.
Underdog: Complete Collector’s Edition was released from Shout! Factory on DVD Feb. 21, 2012. Nine Discs; 1260 minutes; buy it on Amazon.