Underdog (also known as A Dog’s Courage) is the only animated film at the London Korean Film Festival, and the only one seemingly aimed at children, and it certainly stood out as one to keep an eye on.
The basic plot follows Moongchi (Kyung-soo Doo), a family dog who has been abandoned by his owners. Having loved and trusted his owner for his whole life, Moongchi waits patiently for him to return and pick him up. Alone and unsure how to survive, he’s taken in by a group of other strays, who have been living on the streets for a while and know how to get by. Living in a slum on the edge of town, they get by via scavenging through trash, and the kindness of some of the locals. However, a dogcatcher stalks the streets, hunting down any stray he can get his hands on.
One day when he wanders up to the mountains Moongchi sees a group of wild dogs and decides that he wants to befriend them, particularly the young female Bami (So-dam Park). The wild dogs initially want nothing to do with Moongchi or his friends, but when the dog catcher learns of this group he sets his sights on them too, leading to the two packs to team up together to try and reach a new home safe from people.
On the surface the film reminded me of stories like Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood, with a group of animals coming together in order to find a safe new home. However, unlike those other stories, the actual journey in Underdog doesn’t even start until close to halfway through the film, giving viewers a good long period to get to know the dogs before they end up in peril – and oh boy do they end up in peril!
Much like the aforementioned stories, Underdog has a level of danger to it that I think most children’s films seem to have lost over the years. It’s not as bloodthirsty as The Animals of Farthing Wood (which is like Game of Thrones for children) but dogs do die during this film, and whilst it’s sometimes dramatic and shows the stakes, there’s at least one time it happens that’s just plain sad and designed to hit you where it hurts. It doesn’t mean this isn’t a film suitable for kids, but it does mean that parents need to be aware just in case their little ones burst into tears.
Underdog has an interesting art style too, one that seems very different from most western animated features. Instead of being completely hand drawn or completely CGI, the film has these gorgeous backgrounds that have a great hand painted feel to them, whilst most of the characters seem to have been built as 3D elements in a computer but designed to look two dimensional too.
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The result is a little janky at times, and there are a few moments where some of the dogs’ movements or expressions seem a little off and made me think about cel-shaded video games. There is one particular scene where the villainous dog catcher is talking to a character who seems to have been made completely two dimensional, and the difference really jumps out there; but on the whole the animation style is very smooth, and looks great, and I’d have happily spent time looking through the beautifully crafted environments.
Underdog was a surprisingly good film, one that is definitely aimed at children, but thanks to different sensibilities of the south Korean film makers, feels a bit more grown-up than what we’d be used to from a US production. The story has things in it that are darker, and has heavier themes that will appeal to the adults who watch this with their children. Definitely worth checking out.
The London Korean Film Festival 2020 runs from 29th October – 12th November with cinema screenings in London and online screenings available to audiences across the UK. For further information and tickets: koreanfilm.co.uk