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'Air Bud' doggone good for a golden retriever

Air Bud August 5, 1997
Web posted at: 5:23 p.m. EDT (2123 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- "Air Bud" is a movie about a basketball-playing golden retriever, and, in that respect, it's not unlike Ingmar Bergman's brooding 1957 classic "The Seventh Seal."

Just kidding. That's called an "eye-grabber." I really don't know what to tell you about this movie. I mean, what could I possibly write that would make you say, "Okay. Now I have enough information. I've finally decided not to see that one about the dog with the killer jump shot."

It seems to me that one look at the poster (in which Bud, wearing a basketball uniform, is shown knocking the bottom out of one) would eliminate the chance of fence-straddlers. You can safely assume that no one associated with this movie is thinking Oscar party, in other words.

Buddy is a real-life doggie who first achieved notoriety by sinking baskets on David Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks several years ago. He doesn't really "play" basketball as such (tell him to dribble a ball without traveling, and, like many NBA players, he'll just stare at you). However, all you have to do is toss a b-ball towards his snout, and he'll knock it up and into a regulation basketball hoop, but pronto.

This is a lot more than last season's Celtics could do, and, as far as golden retrievers go, it's a fairly impressive stunt. It is not however, what you would call a plot-heavy activity.

vxtreme Complete film trailer Partial film trailer
video icon 791K/20 sec. QuickTime movie

Story gets laughs from small children

Neither is the movie, but little kids around the theater were squealing periodically while I watched it, so I suppose it gets the job done. Michael Jeter plays a really bad, abusive kiddie party clown who uses Buddy in his unfunny act. In the opening scene, Buddy causes Jeter to fall face-first into a large cake, a gag that kids have inexplicably been busting a gut over for 70 years now. And the beat goes on.

Jeter decides to retaliate by dumping Buddy at the pound, but, as plot devices will have it, the transport cage falls off the back of his pickup truck with Buddy still in it.

Buddy is soon rescued by 12-year-old Josh (Kevin Zegers), the lonely new kid in town who's the manager of the school basketball team. He woos Buddy with some pudding, they get to know each other better, and an emotional bond is eventually established. Just like the grown-ups do it.

Josh and Buddy become best friends, even though his mom (Wendy Makkena) doesn't want a dog around the house. A great deal of the film consists of Buddy getting into "situations," and knocking things over. In one scene, he kicks over a bucket of paint, which splatters all over everyone. This is another gag that kids have inexplicably been busting a gut over for 70 years now.

There's also an old janitor at the school who used to play basketball for the New York Knicks. (The janitor at my school looked like Rasputin and could barely operate a mop, but, what the hey). A real mean coach is fired, and Josh belatedly makes the squad when the janitor takes over the helm. Then we're taught a lesson in teamwork, a pretty severe one, too, when you consider that it involves letting a dog play point guard on a junior high school basketball team.

Dog plays better ball than Madonna

Eventually, Buddy signs a multiyear deal with the Lakers, wins Rookie of the Year, and ends up getting arrested for driving his Ferrari 172 mph on the freeway outside of Orlando. When he's pulled over, the cops find a gun and three grams of coke.

Okay, I made up that last part, but if the rest of the movie sounds pretty warped, that's because it is. I will say, though, that it's about time a film was made that depicted golden retrievers as the dedicated, productive members of our society that we all know them to be.

It should also be mentioned that there's a slightly disturbing sub-plot in which Jeter returns to take Buddy back, but I don't think even the kids believed that was gonna happen. It doesn't take up much time, anyway. Timmy does not fall down an abandoned mine shaft, probably just because there isn't anyone in the movie named Timmy.

Charles Martin Smith (best known as Terry the Toad in "American Graffiti") directed this, and he has managed to pull a fine, subtle performance from Buddy. Golden retriever or not, he's certainly a more convincing ballplayer than Madonna was in "A League of Their Own."

"Air Bud" is a kids' movie from the git-go. The younger the better -- it seems to me they'll enjoy the slapstick and the cute canine. Do not confuse Buddy the basketball-playing dog with Buddy, the deviled egg-serving gorilla from the recent Renee Russo vehicle. If that's the kind of demeaning thing you're looking for, just take it on the arches. You disgust me. Rated PG. 97 minutes.

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