Chief Justice Michael Stailey has just added a puppy to his Christmas wish list.
The Air Buddies series rolls into the holidays and runs smack dab into a brand new Disney franchise—Santa Paws, the canine species very own Christmas legend.
Facts of the Case
As Christmas draws near, activity at the North Pole is heating up, but all is not well. Santa Claus (George Wendt, Cheers) and his faithful canine companion, Santa Paws (voiced by Tom Bosley, Happy Days), are distraught. It seems people have stopped believing in Christmas, and the Great Christmas Icicle is melting as a result. This isn't just a minor problem. The smaller the icicle gets, the less Christmas magic Santa has at his disposal and the less power the North Pole has to run the workshop. This doesn't mean much to Puppy Paws (Zachary Gordon, The Brothers Bloom), heir to the Santa Paws legacy. He could care less about tradition and responsibility. He just wants to be a normal pup. So when he spots one of the Buddies on the Naughty List, he high tails it to Fernfield, WA in search of a mentor and a friend, unknowingly setting off a chain of cataclysmic events that may mean the end of Christmas…forever!
The Buddies franchise—Air Buddies (2006), Snow Buddies (2008), Space Buddies (2009)—has taken a lot of heat for pandering to the lowest common denominator of direct-to-DVD family entertainment. I understand critics' frustrations. After four Air Bud sequels—Air Bud: Golden Receiver (1998), Air Bud: World Pup (2000), Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (2002), Air Bud: Spikes Back (2003)—the variation-on-a-theme storytelling got old. But let's cut writer/director/producer Robert Vince some slack. He knows his target audience, the films sell well, and the kids love 'em. This isn't high art, it's innocuous fun, and often more engaging than a lot of the B and C-level CG-animation being shoveled into the market.
With Santa Buddies, it's all about reminding kids there's more to the holiday season than just commercialism and material gain. Is it a new message? Of course not, it's been ingrained in modern pop culture since A Charlie Brown Christmas and stretches back much farther than that. But it's healthy to refresh the sentiment every so often.
There's a surprising amount of stuff going on in this 88 minute adventure, with a story drawing on many familiar holiday elements: Miracle on 34th Street—The jaded disbelief in Santa and Christmas; It's a Wonderful Life—Puppy Paws wishes Christmas never existed and experiences life from a whole different perspective; The Year Without a Santa Claus—Santa, unable to travel, sends his most trusted elves to locate and bring Puppy Paws home; A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas—The miserly dogcatcher, Stan Cruge (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future), has his cold heart melted by the love of a child; and so on. Yes, the pacing is a bit disjointed, the performances are mixed (George Wendt looks like he's ready to fire his agent), the CG-work (especially at the North Pole) is heavy-handed, the music is forgettable, and whole thing feels a little undercooked, but I know damn well my nieces and nephew (who are all under the age of 6) will love every single minute of it. And really, that's what these films are all about—goofball comedy, a bit of action, a simple message, and dogs. If you're a cat family, the appeal may be lost on you, but there's a Yorkie named Tiny (voiced by Kaitlyn Maher) who is the picture's emotional harpoon. If she gets you, you're in it 'til the end.
As for the Buddies themselves, the distinct personality traits are once again fleshed out for the uninitiated—Buddha is the Zen master, Budderball is the lumbering oaf with a bottomless stomach, Mudbud is the outdoorsman, B-Dawg is the urban gangsta, and Rosebud is the female voice of reason and surrogate mom. They each have their own individual moments with Puppy Paws, as he attempts to learn what it means to be Joe-average puppy (with unpredictable Christmas magic), and together they learn that individual conflicts and frustrations are meaningless when a crisis as big as saving Christmas is on the table. The Buddies even get to draw upon their past experience as sled dogs to help save the day. Look at that, the Buddies have canon. Who knew?
What puzzled me most was the introduction of the entire Santa Paws mythos. Does this mean there's a Santa pet who handles Christmas for every species on the planet, or just dogs? Regardless, it seems the Buddies are being put out to stud, in favor of a Santa Paws series which continues in The Search for Santa Paws (2010) and another film slated for 2011. Vince is nothing, if not prolific.
Presented in a clear 1.78:1, 1080p AVC transfer, the colors sparkle and the detail is strong (even at night), but there does appear to be some unnecessary digital enhancement that gets in the way from time to time. The drawback to the Blu-ray is that those low-budget CG effects look all the more cheesy in high-def. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is spot on for this type of heavy-dialogue presentation. It doesn't paint a very robust soundscape, but there's enough ambience (when it counts) to make it worthwhile. French and Spanish language tracks are included, as are English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
In terms of bonus materials, this Christmas stocking is pretty much empty.
Sing-Along (3 min)
Music Video (2 min)
It won't cement itself in the pantheon of celebrated holiday films, but Santa Buddies is good fun for the 7-and-under set.
The Christmas spirit has moved me. Not Guilty.
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