I would wager most people would say one of the Star Wars, Marvel, or Hobbit films when asked what movie they have seen most in a movie theater. For me, it was today’s film, Air Bud. I think I maxed out at 27 times. Details on that later. Air Bud is the 1997 Disney film that launched a franchise about a golden retriever who could play basketball – and a variety of other sports. It was written by Kevin DiCicco, Paul Tamasy and Aaron Mendelsohn and was directed by actor/director Charles Martin Smith. It stars Michael Jeter, Kevin Zegers, Wendy Makenna, Bill Cobbs and features Eric Christmas, Brendan Fletcher, and of course, Buddy the dog.
We start our film sometime between September and December with a familiar plot of single parent Jackie (Wendy Makkena) taking their two young children, pre-teen Josh (Kevin Zegers) and daughter (Jessebel and Kati Mather) to their new home in Fernfield, home of the third-largest napkin factory. Along the way, they almost hit an empty kennel. The dog from the kennel was being taken to the pound after sabotaging a birthday party. Josh sees the dog as they pull away, but is in too much of a bad mood to say anything.
Josh goes to school and at first tries the trombone since his mom liked it in school but it isn’t quite his thing. Spying a basketball tryout sign-up form on a bulletin board, Josh is interrupted when signing up by the bell ringing and he starts home. He stops at a church when he sees a basketball hoop behind it and takes out a basketball from his backpack. We later learn it is the same basketball he and his dad, a test pilot killed in action, used to play with. Josh hears rustling in the bushes but is unable to find its source.
The cliché of a moody kid continues as Josh says the new school sucks. His mom tries to convince him to give it a chance as his dad would want it. When he goes to try out for the team, he is made fun of by the other boys and sits on the bench the entire time and doesn’t participate but the coach recruits him as manager. Josh brought pudding cups with him and the dog comes out and Josh befriends him. Through a series of funny scenes, Josh gets the dog home, bathes it in the bathtub, and tries to hint to his mom he wants a pet. The dog spies a basketball, bites at it, sending it down the stairs where he chases it and makes a mess in the living room ending with wallpaper paste pouring over its head.
Josh’s mom makes him put up posters around town, which the dog, now named Buddy, immediately takes down. Josh convinces her to let him keep the dog until after Christmas and she reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Josh befriends maintenance worker Art, who appears to be a former NBA star with the Knicks. Christmas comes and Josh finds Buddy with a bow on his head, his mom letting him keep him,
After Christmas break, two players from the team move to Canada opening some spots. Art sneaks Josh a tryout flier and while at first the coach and some of the team laugh, he makes the team. Buddy ends up interrupting a game but surprises everyone when he makes a basket, becoming the half-time show and official mascot. This leads to Buddy’s former owner, Norm, seeing Buddy on TV then finding the Framm’s and taking Buddy home with him. Josh ends up breaking Buddy free then abandoning him across the lake.
Finally, it’s the championship game and half the team is out with the chickenpox. After a player fouls out, they have no choice but to put Buddy in the game because “There ain’t no rule that says a dog can’t play basketball.” It also turns out Larry, the team’s former star, is now on the opposing team. Josh’s team comes from behind until it is all down to Josh who has to make a similar shot to one he missed earlier in the season. He does, and the crowd cheers until Norm comes in demanding the dog again. He says he is going to take it to the judge.
The bumbling judge decides to let Buddy decide, and in a swelling of music, Buddy chooses Josh, and everybody lives happily ever after.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I saw this movie a lot in the theater. I like basketball and I like dogs, and this movie had both. I was on the school’s basketball team at one point, so this movie really played to my nostalgia. Plus, hey, it’s a Disney movie. Another reason is that while I was living in Los Angeles, I actually became part of the publicity team for Kevin Zegers, the film’s star, so I am a little biased.
The film was based on the character Air Bud created by Kevin DiCicco. DiCicco and Buddy appeared on late-night talk shows in the very early 90s. He then went on to try and make a film about Buddy and an entire franchise was born. DiCicco even appears in the film as one of the referees in the final game. After Air Bud was released, however, things got tense between DiCicco and fellow producer Robert Vince as Vince went forward on a sequel without DiCicco. While Dicicco is given a writer credit in the sequel, it is a character-created-by-credit. In total there have been a total of 14 films in the franchise with 12 of them being direct-to-video.
The film is shot beautifully and is emblematic of the mid-90s Disney films of the time. While the script is not rocket-science with the cliché single-parent storyline, instead of joining two families, they get Buddy, which is a good compromise. Zegers excels in the role and Michael Jeter is believable as the over-the-top clown. Bill Cobbs outshines Wendy Makenna who at times is relegated to being on the phone trying to juggle things with the napkin company.
The Hero’s Journey in storytelling is abundantly clear in the film as Josh is moody and doesn’t want to do anything, meets his hero Art who denies being a hero at all, then ends up with a big emotional climax only to have it taken away then reappear later. While formulaic, the film is extremely entertaining and emotional as we are bonded to Buddy as much as Josh is.
The plot of the basketball team trying to keep up their winning tradition takes a dark turn around the halfway point of the film when the coach throws basketballs at Tom. Tom had missed completing a pass several times in the previous game. Seeing a player abused in this way was both uncomfortable and familiar, as was Larry’s overbearing father. This was the catalyst for Art joining the team, I get that. But for extremely young viewers, they may be horrified and frightened.
While Christmas is really only in the background, I fully recommend Air Bud to those wishing to revisit a fun film that contains Christmas themes. It even stars Eric Christmas, so there you go. For those with younger kids who only know the “Buddies” films with talking retriever pups, this is a great film to introduce them to the original followed by Air Bud Golden Retriever. Just… skip Seventh Inning Fetch.