As sequels go, “Air Bud: Golden Receiver” is barking up the wrong tree. The continuing saga of a canine with uncanny athletic ability and his boy with growing pains has evolved into a by-the-numbers, wholesome family comedy. There are smart dog tricks, stupid human antics and important moral lessons in the mix. But the humanity of the original has been excised, making the new chapter far too predictable and pedestrian. The film’s commercial pedigree promises OK theatrical returns and slightly better results in video sales.
New yarn picks up post-basketball season with Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) trying to come to terms with the return of his widowed mother, Jackie (Cynthia Stevenson), to the dating circuit. It becomes a big problem for him when things get serious between her and the town’s new vet, Patrick Sullivan (Gregory Harrison). Josh simply won’t warm to the doc, almost spitting when he brings the basketball hound a football.
But when his golden retriever, Buddy, takes to the new game, Josh discovers he has a pretty good throwing arm. Perennially losing coach Fanelli (Robert Costanzo) puts the lad on the junior high squad as backup quarterback; as in an old Warner Bros. backstage musical, an accident on the field sidelines the team star and thrusts Josh into the leading role.
The filmmakers obviously don’t believe there’s enough drama and fun in the basic story and tack on a preposterous subplot involving “Boris and Natasha”-like villains (Nora Dunn, Perry Anzilotti) who are kidnapping talented animals for a circus they plan to take on tour back in their native Russia. Buddy is on their hit list after the fiends see a news clip of him disrupting a pro hoops game and scoring several baskets.
In truth, “Air Bud: Golden Receiver” is Kevin’s story — the tale of a teenager confronting, albeit superficially, the loss of his father and his mother’s efforts to resume her life. Buddy has been reduced to comic relief and stunt work. In fact, there are four canines used in the pic to do the dog’s various tricks (the original Buddy died shortly after completion of the first “Air Bud”).
Writers Paul Tamasy and Aaron Mendelsohn aren’t terribly successful at furthering the first installment. Nothing quite connects, with the broad comedy chafing badly against the script’s heartfelt life lessons. The story’s primary tension, oddly enough, lies in the prospect that the dog will save the day rather than the team of misfits at last coming together and believing in themselves.
Technically, the film has a functional simplicity that’s unremarkable. But director Richard Martin just barely gets away with faking Buddy’s football prowess and is ham-fisted in staging the physical comedy surrounding the comeuppance of the cartoon heavies.
The cast has a cozy quality befitting the essentially light material. Zegers is one of the few actors from the original pic to return for the sequel (along with the ever-reliable Jay Brazeau); the role of his mother has been passed on to Stevenson from Wendy Makkena. The characters are all so terribly nice or just plain silly and, like the film, not to be taken seriously for a moment.