Air Bud
directed by Charles Martin Smith
(Buena Vista Pictures, 1997)

Is there anything more compelling than the story of a boy and his dog? Yes, if the story is Air Bud.

Air Bud -- real name, Buddy -- is a ball-balancing golden retriever who works with a third-rate party clown named Norm Snively (Michael Jeter). Buddy has only one real problem: He keeps upstaging his master, who consequently decides to dump Buddy at the local pound.

On the way, however, Buddy's crate falls from Snively's truck, allowing Buddy to escape, much as Chance did in 1993's Homeward Bound II.

Shortly thereafter Buddy meets up with Josh Fram (Kevin Zegers), a young teen who's just been double whammied: following the death of his father, his mother has moved the family to a small town in Washington state where he wears a scarlet "O" for outsider -- not unlike Matthew Turner (Thomas Guiry) in 1994's Lassie.

Josh's only hope is to make his school's basketball team, which he does with an able assist from Buddy. But word of Buddy's deeds soon get back to Snively, and he comes looking for Buddy in his pickup, which ends up in Puget Sound -- in a replay of the lab-truck scene from Homeward Bound II.

When Air Bud director Charles Martin Smith is not reworking scenes and situations from recent kid flicks, he's introducing us to an all-too-familiar cast of characters: The single mom who desperately wants her son to fit in (Wendy Makkena); the macho basketball coach (Stephen E. Miller) who would tell a double amputee to "walk it off"; the macho sports dad (Brendan Fletcher) who takes his talented son to another school when the macho coach loses his job; the chip-off-the-old-block talented son (Norman Browning) who goes out of his way to undermine Josh's efforts; the school's aptly named CEO, Principal Pepper (Nicole Cavendish), who acts more like a cheerleader than an administrator in her thankfully few on-screen moments; and a former NBA star (Bill Cobbs) who's hiding out as the school janitor.

If you can't figure out what happens from here, then you haven't been paying attention.

Air Bud, which begins with a winning star and a cute idea, quickly forsakes its promise for a pastiche of tried-and-true set pieces, skillfully cut and pasted, but cut and pasted nonetheless. And with so many black-and-white characters, it's a miracle the studio was able to shoot it in color.

To be fair, Air Bud has its moments. There's a running gag involving the newspaper that eventually pays off, Makkena makes a fetching and effective mom and Cobbs comes across well as the man who comes out of hiding to do what a man has to do -- a sort of poor man's Bill Cosby. Truly, there are worse things to be.

If you're too young to have seen all this before, or haven't been to a kids' film since they added sound, then perhaps this Bud is for you. The rest of us, I think, would prefer to give it a rest.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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