I’ve been mocked wholeheartedly for enjoying (despite my initial resistance) Snow Buddies, which is one of the many straight-to-video sequels spawned by this original Disney hit. “Come on!” I want to argue… “No one’s getting hurt! These movies are harmless! Put your rolling eyeballs back in your head, and leave me alone with my sappy animals movies!” But somehow I had never seen Air Bud, the movie that started it all.
Air Bud is surprisingly solemn, compared to the Buddies franchise, and in fact many scenes in the film are downright traumatic. Buddy the dog (a very pretty and expressive golden retriever) is a canine assistant to the worst children’s party clown ever, whom I’ll now refer to as Ass Clown (Michael Jeter). Ass Clown is not only an unfunny and destructive clown, but he beats the dog with a rolled up newspaper. But Buddy the dog has some mad skills involving catching balls in his mouth, and beaking tossed basketballs directly into hoops. But after another party gone bad, Ass Clown threatens to take Buddy straight to the pound, but Buddy’s kennel falls off the back of his pickup, and Ass Clown drives off unbeknownst and probably relieved when he discovers his “loss” later.
After getting almost run over by a car (!) driven by the mother of young Josh (Kevin Zegers), Buddy ends up living in the cold and muddy yard of an abandoned church. Now, why the hell Josh’s mom didn’t stop to check on a dog that was standing alone on a country road obviously abandoned, I’ll never know. Josh, of course, runs into his kindred spirit later when shooting hoops by himself in the church yard. Luring Buddy from the bushes with pudding cups, like luring E.T. with Reese’s Pieces, Josh and Buddy are suddenly new best friends.
In the meantime, Josh, being the new kid in town, is having trouble fitting in. He wants to be on the school basketball team, but is too shy to try out. He ends up being the “manager” (aka water boy) until forces align and he gets to show off his mad skills. But of course it is when his loyal dog Buddy crashes Josh’s first game and beaks the ball into the hoop a couple times in front of a roaring appreciative crowd that a real star is born.
Despite its feel-good marketing campaign with lots of high-fivin’ and hijinks on the court and at home, there are a lot of dark moments in Air Bud. For instance, you see a school basketball coach abusing a kid with a basketball by throwing it at him really hard repeatedly (yikes!). You see crazy Ass Clown threatening Buddy in a really scary way (he eventually comes back to try to take the dog back once Buddy gains fame for his basketball skills). And there is a traumatizing scene where Josh tries to abandon Buddy (to keep him away from Ass Clown, who is looking for him) that culminates with the poor kid SOBBING as poor Buddy looks panicked. I mean, GOSH!
But luckily, there are some sweet moments and some funny moments to balance it all out. A few cute scenes had me laugh out loud, and heck if I didn’t believe that Buddy the dog was actually making all those baskets (I mean, he was, wasn’t he? Don’t tell me if it was fake….). Some of the hijinks scenes are over the top, but luckily they aren’t as bad as so many other of Disney’s recent kids movies.
Oh, and if you are in for a treat to shatter your enjoyment of the film afterwards, you can enjoy the only DVD extra on the Special Edition DVD (other than the original trailer and the free dog tag): Feature commentary by the Buddies. Yes, voice commentary by actors pretending to be dogs. One bonus about Air Bud (versus the puppy sequels it spawned) is that Buddy’s lips don’t move. Heck, in those days, dogs could ACT without speaking. Who wants to hear weird commentary with little kids pretending to act like puppies? (shudder)