“Like Mike” ties together the now-hallowed family movie and the childhood sports fantasy into an amiable package that will keep the kids occupied over the long summer holiday weekend. But as with too many studio pics, plot mechanics get in the way of what should be the lighter-than-air adventure of a pintsize teen orphan whose magic sneakers land him a spot on an NBA squad. Although the court action contains only a fraction of the hoops energy one would expect from a pic co-produced by NBA Entertainment — and film suffers from the conspicuous absence of the title’s Michael Jordan — wide-ranging crowds will ensure a winning B.O. score for Fox, followed by a sweet run through ancillary playoffs.
Pic shoots for mass appeal with casting of Lil’ Bow Wow, Snoop Dogg’s longtime minicompanion, in his first lead role as 14-year-old Calvin, who is stuck at an orphanage in the shadow of downtown L.A. Calvin initially must face off with big bully Ox (Jesse Plemons), but this tired redux of sentiments that were hip when the Katzenjammers were kids is temporarily shelved when Calvin happens upon a pair of sneakers sporting what seem to be a young Michael Jordan’s initials.
Zapped with lightning during a storm, the shoes give Calvin Flubberesque jumping ability, which he shows off during a halftime one-on-one contest at Staples Center against Los Angeles Knights star Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut). Since the Knights are struggling in the standings and at the gate, general manager Frank Bernard (Eugene Levy) reckons Calvin’s skills (the under-5-footer can slam-dunk and sink three-pointers) are enough to sign him up.
Still, Frank’s original plan is to have Calvin sit on the bench as a mascot for just one game. It’s one of many plot complications that writers Michael Elliot and Jordan Moffet allow to muddy what should have been a simpler, more enjoyable story.
Indeed, Calvin’s developing relationship with an initially skeptical Tracey, and gags — although many uninspired — that naturally spill on to the screen as the little guy contends with life on the road in the NBA seem to provide enough story elements. Still, the plot adds two villains, Ox and orphanage director Stan, whom thesp Crispin Glover and helmer John Schultz try to turn into a Dickensian villain with a postmodern twist.
This leads to pointless distractions, like the filmmakers’ emphasis on Glover’s protruding nose: Schultz and lenser Shawn Maurer seem to have lit the thesp to particularly weird effect. The other visual effects, mostly shots of Lil’ Bow Wow jumping, flying and slamming, are nearly upstaged by Glover’s odd presence.
Meanwhile, almost as odd as the absence of MJ himself is the lack of stars from the L.A. teams among pic’s parade of actual NBA hoopsters. The Knights can be seen as the stand-in squad for the always-underdog Clippers. But members of the team, as well as three-peat champs the Lakers, are AWOL, even though the Lakers’ vaunted triangle offense is discussed in an especially cute scene between Calvin and Tracey.
Instead, many of the guys the Lakers habitually beat — from Chris Webber to Jason Kidd to Allen Iverson — make rather wooden appearances. (Actually, if pic really wanted to be au courant with its target youth market, the correct title would be “Like Kobe.”)
Lil’ Bow Wow shows good presence onscreen, playing the requisite range of emotions from cocky to frustrated with confidence. Taking a break from his screen career as a ladies’ man, Chestnut puts up solid numbers as a typical stuck-up star who comes around to appreciate the new kid on the block. Levy does a milder variation on his usual shtick, while Robert Forster as the Knight’s coach helps ground the basketball action in something like reality.
Tech elements are fine, but courtside camerawork is stolid rather than fluid and exciting. As usual in lower-budget Hollywood comedies, scene after scene is overlit. Tune-stuffed soundtrack features, natch, the latest Lil’ Bow Wow stylings.