Kevin Zegers, Bill Cobbs, Wendy Makkena.
(PG, 98 min.)
A distinct canine motif runs through basketball history. Witness past and present NBA players Fred "Mad Dog" Carter, Tim Bassett, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson and Joe Wolf. Not to mention former UT Longhorn star Locksley Collie. So it was only a matter of time until our great cultural distillery, Hollywood, boiled this trend down to its essence with a movie about a hoopster who's a dog in fact as well as name. Given Disney's deranged conviction that it's feasible to make a film about a ballplaying dog which also functions as a tender, earnest story of adolescent self-discovery, the results are more enjoyable than one might expect. Director Charles Martin Smith, remembered most vividly for his role as Farley Mowat in 1983's Never Cry Wolf, is no hack. He lavishes far more craftsmanship than is typical in a humble summer low-budgeter of this ilk. There's some bright, imaginative shotmaking and fluid editing here, especially in scenes that require the pooch to bust his moves on the hardwood. The dog is a golden retriever named Buddy, who acquired his unique ability working for a loutish first owner as half of a novelty act called "A Clown and a Hound." He soon escapes and takes up with a lonely, basketball-loving youngster named Josh (Zegers), who dreams of playing on his middle school team. When Josh accidentally discovers Buddy's rare ability, he enlists the four-legged cager as a practice partner and soon makes both the team and the starting lineup. As the squad (appropriately called the Timberwolves) makes a state title run under the sage direction of their school janitor-turned-coach (winningly played by Bill Cobbs), Buddy functions as an inspirational mascot. Later, as we know from the previews, he gets a chance to break the sport's shameful, long-standing species barrier as a full member of the team. It probably goes without saying that the aspects of the story which aspire for emotional uplift could be replaced by full-screen captions reading "Mentally Insert Pro-Forma Sentimental Spew Here," but that hardly matters because the overriding concept here is watching loveable Buddy display his mad skillz on the floor. Scouting Bud's game, I give respect to his near-automatic shot, a sort of spot-up head-butt that he can stick from anywhere on the court. Lack of stature (he's maybe 18 inches from head to floor) and hands limit his effectiveness on the glass, but he runs the floor well and, good pack animal that he is, he thinks team first and personal stats last. Free throws? Automatic, especially in the clutch. As novelty hooks go, a canine hoop god is really pretty inspired, and the artfully staged basketball scenes are undeniably a hoot to watch. Limit your expectations to this modest level, and you should find Air Bud a tolerable family outing.
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