Disney // 1997 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 9th, 2009
"Does he dribble?"
"No, but he might drool a little bit."
Once upon a time, there was a lovable family movie about a basketball-playing dog who befriended a boy, helped a basketball team win a championship, and united a community. Then, the movie became a franchise -- about a dog who played lots of sports and his talking offspring, a five-some of puppies who play sports, join a dog sled team, and even travel to space. Coming right on the heels of that latest "Buddies" direct-to-DVD travesty, Disney is re-releasing the movie that started it all, Air Bud, in a special edition that shows not only how good the original was, but how awful the recent movies are by comparison.
It's been a year since Josh's (Kevin Zegers, Air Bud: Golden Receiver) father died in a plane crash, and his mother (Wendy Makkena, Judging Amy) has decided to move him and his sister to the small town of Fernfield, Washington, so they can make a fresh start. When his dad was alive, Josh loved to play basketball. Now, he spends most of his time alone. That changes when Josh meets Buddy, a golden retriever who ran away from his cruel party-clown master (Michael Jeter, Mouse Hunt). Josh eventually convinces his mom to let him keep the stray, and Buddy becomes part of the family. Practicing on an old basketball court behind an abandoned church, Josh discovers that Buddy is able to play basketball. He tries to keep his dog's talent a secret, but when Josh goes from manager to player on his school's basketball team, Buddy runs onto the court during his first game and makes a shot in front of a stunned crowd. Suddenly, Buddy is a mascot and town hero, and it's only a matter of time before his former master finds out where he is.
If all you know about Air Bud is that it was the first movie in Disney's Buddies series, you're probably wondering how unbearable it is, and whether or not you'll be able to stand watching it with your kids. What you probably don't expect is that it's good. It's very good. Sure, it has some cheesy moments, and much of it defies logic, but none of that takes away from the fact that the dog actually plays basketball. I can't stress that enough -- the dog actually plays basketball! Oh, and it's also a heartwarming story about growing up and getting a second chance.
What Air Bud gets right that the Buddies movies get so wrong is that this movie isn't about the dog. It's about the boy. It's about Josh struggling with the death of his dad, and moving to a new town where he doesn't have any friends and where he's too shy to go for his dream of playing basketball. All of that changes, of course, when he meets Buddy. They go through all the standard steps of integrating boy, dog, and family, including Josh sneaking Buddy into the house, giving him a messy first bath, the dog escaping and wreaking havoc, and Josh's mom insisting they can't keep the dog before finally relenting. From there on out, the movie switches gears and becomes a literal underdog story about a basketball team who comes together and starts to win under the leadership of a former pro turned janitor and a furry mascot who charms the crowd with halftime displays of ball-handling prowess.
Of course, the team makes it to the big game and the dog saves the day, but not before Josh faces the legitimately moving choice of whether to put his dog in danger by keeping him or letting him go so he'll be safe. It's standard family movie fare to be sure, but edgier than the milquetoast gag-fests the series has become. It's worth noting that Air Bud is rated PG, and for good reason. There's some mild language and a few tense moments involving Buddy's abusive former owner and a coach who gets fired for taking his frustrations out on his weakest player. It's nothing that older kids can't handle, but I'm afraid some unsuspecting parents are going to pick this up for their Buddy-loving young uns and get a nasty surprise.
The best thing about this movie is Buddy the dog. Not only is he as cute and charming as you'd expect a cinematic pet to be, he can also play basketball. That is, he chases after the ball, moves it down court with his nose, and is able to propel it into the basket with his mouth. No special effect, no CGI, just a talented and well-trained dog. Maybe that's less impressive to those of you who are able play basketball, but to an uncoordinated klutz like myself, it's pretty darned cool. It's even more impressive considering that the Buddies series has to make up for its otherwise average puppy stars by forcing individual personalities on them through animated mouths and voice actors.
Air Bud gets a decent presentation here, but nothing spectacular. The widescreen video transfer is a little grainy at times but otherwise fine, and the 5.1 soundtrack, while clear and balanced, makes zero use of the surround speakers. It might as well be stereo.
I have a soft spot for Air Bud. It's a fun little movie with an impressive star. I just wish I was impressed with this so-called "Special Edition." The five biggest problems with this DVD are staring right back at you from the front of the box: those darn Buddies. They take up the whole bottom third of the cover art, which is even more annoying since the special packaging comes with a "Buddy" dog tag that obscures the movie's canine star.
The only special feature on the disc is a "Dog-U-Commentary" starring not the director, or dog trainer, or actors, but the Buddies -- that is, the actors who voice the puppies, in character. They're joined by the disembodied voices of their mother, Molly, and father, Buddy, which is even weirder considering the whole "talking dog" thing wasn't part of the series until well after Air Bud. I suppose the commentary is aimed at young fans of the new movies, but the experience is just painful. The whole thing is obviously scripted and not very well acted. The worst part is that it drags down a perfectly good movie by emphasizing just how bad the sequels have gotten. It's like Jar Jar Binks doing a commentary for The Empire Strikes Back, or a Beatles documentary being hosted by the New Monkees.
Air Bud is a fun, if predictable, family film. It combines the warmth of a boy-and-his-pet story with the drama of an underdog sports movie. The problem with this Special Edition is that because it's so heavily branded with the Buddies spin-off characters that what should be a celebration of a late-90s Disney movie is actually a marketing tool for inferior sequels at the expense of the original. There ought to be a making-of featurette about how Kevin DiCicco trained Buddy to play basketball, but there isn't. Instead, all we get is an annoying commentary designed to sell more direct-to-DVD stinkers to impressionable children. That doesn't sound very special to me.
Buddy is free to be awesome, but I'm sending his puppies back to the pound.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailer