As high concept pictures go, “Air Bud” has the promising, if limited, come-on of a basketball-playing pooch. While it’s true he drools rather than dribbles, golden retriever Buddy has uncanny accuracy at popping a ball into the hoop with his snout. Thankfully, the filmmaker’s don’t overplay this “stupid dog trick” and focus on some enduring, as well as creaky, family values. Pic is an old-fashioned heart-tugger in the tradition of “Old Yeller” and, while far from a commercial slam dunk, has sufficient fun and hijinx not to get lost in the summer release schedule. Good theatrical prospects lay in store, and even better play on videocassette.
Buddy is part of an act called The Clown and the Hound that plays birthday parties in the rural Northwest. His owner, the hopelessly unfunny Norm Snively (Michael Jeter), seems to harbor some degree of jealousy toward the dog who effortlessly wins over youngsters. So, when Buddy mispaws, the snivelly Snively packs him up for the pound.
However, en route, the clown’s decidedly emission uncontrolled pickup hits a bump in the road and the dog, cage and all, tumbles off onto the byway’s shoulder.
At about the same time, youngster Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) arrives in Fernfield, Wash., with his widowed mother Jackie (Wendy Makkena). An inward child since his test pilot father’s death, he suffers the usual punishment as the new kid at school and fails miserably as a trombone player in the band. However, circumstance lands him the job as manager of the basketball team. Of course, he really wants to be a player.
There’s no question that Paul Tamasy and Aaron Mendelsohn’s script is anchored in cliche. One can see every plot turn coming like Lawrence’s camel in the distant horizon. So, the fun of the piece is having one’s expectations fulfilled, while the agony — for anyone with a rudimentary movie education — is watching the syrupy sentimentality spill over and coat the frame.
At the old lot that he has refashioned as his personal basketball court, Josh discovers Buddy and lures him out of the foliage with yogurt cups. Then he accidentally discovers the dog’s prowess.
It should come as no surprise that the coach (Stephen E. Miller) is a win-by-any-means kind of guy, and that Josh winds up making the squad. When the coach is sacked for browbeating a player, the newcomer suggests letting the school janitor (Bill Cobbs) lead the team; Josh realizes that the man is actually a one-time New York Knicks star.
Coincidence and convenience are essential elements of “Air Bud,” and it is difficult to determine with precision why such a predictable piece of hokum is as affecting as this picture is. But it no doubt has something to do with the enduring appeal of dogs and kids, as well as with the emotional pull of yarns in which the bad guys get their just desserts and decent folk prevail.
Certainly director Charles Martin Smith provides the story with a lot of heart. His keener attitude appears to have infected such cast members as Cobbs and Makkena, who provide a serious, dignified presence that nicely balances the buffoonery of Jeter and such vets as Eric Christmas and Jay Brazeau. He also elicits very natural work from the youngsters in the cast.
Tech credits are smooth in this modestly produced film, and the confident combination of artistic and physical elements add up to an easy, reassuring entertainment. Though it comes across as a tailor-made Disney movie, the film was an indie acquisition by the studio and Miramax, which recognized that there had to be an audience that would lap up a climactic championship game in which a canine is called in to save the day.