Welcome back, dog fans, to the conclusion of the latest The Series Project, wherein I have been discussing the Air Bud movies. In the last part, I covered, in excruciating detail, the first two films, wherein Buddy, the titular golden retriever played basketball and football respectively. In the sage to come, he will also play soccer, baseball and beach volleyball. And, in a footnote, rugby, hockey, surfing, and golf. I'm just waiting for jai alai to show up.
When we last left the series, Josh Framm (Keven Zegers) had just come to peace with the fact that his mom is dating again, and is planning on remarrying. Buddy is the benevolent sports expert that he is, and little sister Andrea is growing up. Josh himself is growing up too, as he is given his first love interest in…
AIR BUD: WORLD PUP (2001)
Directed by: Bill Bannerman
The director of this film has done second unit work on some prestigious films. I don't want to list his credits here, but I encourage you to look them up. This is the first of the Air Bud films to be released to home video, and the first to bear the direct Disney stamp; the previous films were released by subsidiaries.
So we're still following Josh, and he's still played by Kevin Zegers. His mom, however, has undergone a third transformation, and is now played by Chilton Cane. Andrea is now played by the spunky Caitlin Wachs. This is also our first introduction to Andrea's best friend Tammy, played by the insanely charismatic young actress Chantal Strand. Patrick is now played by Dale Midkiff from Pet Sematary and the obscure '90s sci-fi series Time Trax. Midkiff is a handsome bloke, and his presence implies that Patrick is aging in reverse. Or, even more alluringly, he's a Time Lord like Doctor Who, and can regenerate his appearance. This bit of sci-fi postulation makes World Pup seem all the more interesting.
Air Bud: World Pup is all about romance. Josh, you see, now of appropriate dating age (Zegers was 16 when the film was shot), finds himself attracted to the tawny and athletic English exchange student Emma (Brittany Paige Bouck). As a result, all his basketball and football aspirations go right out the window so he can join her on the field for soccer matches. Bouck is, I have to say, kind of a rotten actress, but then, she was hired because she was an athlete. Plus, she's actually a really appealing young lady; her lack of professional Disney sheen actually makes her come across more like a real person. It's one of those rare cases where a lack of talent helps the acting. Zegers spends the bulk of the film trying to impress her, and even occasionally goes to Patrick for advice.
I don't recall if they were married yet, but mom and Patrick do get married at some point over the course of the last film and this one.
Buddy himself (now played by Dakota, Walker, Shooter, Tango and Poacher) also has a mate, as Emma also owns a golden retriever. I've seen other family films with dogs in them, and I'm baffled as to why there's always implied dog sex. Seriously. There's always some cutesy romance story for the dog. Do kids really want to see dogs romancing one another? Does anyone? Is dog sex ever funny ever? I don't even giggle when a dog humps a person's leg. This whole subplot of two dogs making eyes at one another makes me a little sickened.
The human romance is sweet enough, I suppose, but by this film we're deep into bland Disney territory. No more lost parents to cope with. No more real threats to one's emotional state. No more actual, weighty human drama of any kind. “The Big Game”is the world of the day. There's going to be awkward moment between Josh and Emma, and there's going to be the compulsory scene where our heroes learn that Buddy can play today's sport, that he's good at it, and that he should be let onto the field again. You'd think after two times, Buddy would just be given free reign.
The subplot involves a pair of bumbling thieves, lifted directly from Home Alone, who have come to the conclusion that Buddy's DNA is superior to most dogs', and that they want to clone him. Or something. I'm not exactly sure. They want to kidnap him is all. They go through some painfully unfunny bits trying to snatch the dog, including one ploy to disguise themselves a butlers and move in with Emma's British family. None of this is funny for a second, as it's so broad. Oh yes, and there's an equally unfunny subplot with the spunky little sister Andrea and her spunky best friend Tammy trying to foil Josh's romantic plans. That story doesn't go anywhere, and by mentioning it, I have done my critical duty.
As the humans become less and less interesting as the series progresses, though, it casts a weird angelic light on Buddy himself. Buddy, who never actually wins the winning goal, mind you, is always there to assist Josh in his emotional struggles. As Josh becomes increasingly satisfied with his life (and indeed, after he vanishes in the next film), Buddy can be seen as an ethereal father figure who always knows what's best, and who guided Josh to happiness. Buddy is, in essence, a spooky guardian angel. Only in the form of a miraculous sport-loving dog. Gee, Davey, who could it be?
I have little else to say about World Pup other than to mention that, yes, Buddy did have a litter of puppies, and, yes, they won the game, and, yes, there are some celebrity cameos from some real life soccer stars. Oh and Buddy was allowed on the field at the World Cup. You read that right. For the next film, if it was possible, the series loses most all it's personality but gains its most interesting character.
AIR BUD: SEVENTH INNING FETCH (2002)
Directed by: Robert Vince
Robert Vince has, with this film, started his career as the central auteur behind the franchise. He did the last two films for Air Bud, but also directed many of the Air Buddies movies, as well as a series of films about a sport-playing chimpanzee. I will not be writing about the Most Valuable Primate anytime soon. There are only three films in that series, which violates my at-least-five rule.
So the first Air Bud was about a boy trying to outlive the death of his father. This fourth film is about a young girl trying to get over the departure of her big brother to college. Yes, Josh is moving away, and Andrea, previously only set dressing, has now become the central character. She's still played by Caitlin Wachs. Her stepdad, however, the Time Lord that he is, has now regenerated into Richard Karn from Home Improvement. He not only aged, but gained a bunch of weight, grew a beard, and lost most of his hair. I understand the need to switch up actors when they won't return, but Dale Midkiff and Richard Karn are about as far away as you can get without also changing his race. I suppose we’re supposed to be satisfied that he at least stayed white throughout. Here's something that's curious: Cynthia Stevenson, who played Jackie (the mom) in the second film has returned for this one. Although in this film, she's given little to do other than coo at her new infant son, Noah.
We also have Chantal Strand returning to play Tammy, Andrea's best friend. Although Andrea is the one we spend the most time with, Tammy is the real hero of this story, as she's the one who finds her passion, and who actually accomplishes stuff. Andrea hems and haws and broods like a proper 12-year-old, and tried out for baseball just as something to take her mind off the creepy intense relationship she seems to have had with her brother. Tammy, on the other had, really gets into the game, and becomes a champion. I would have liked to see more of Strand. She's fun and engaging and seems like one of those young Broadway-obsessed actresses I ran into in my 7th grade theater classes.
There's a bad guy in the film, I think. I don't really remember. To be honest, these later films are quickly slipping from my memory. I do seem to remember a chase scene through a street fair, where Buddy knocks over a lot of tables. Oh wait. That was the fifth film. Oh wait. Buddy bites a bad guy in the testicles. That definitely happens. I forgot, though, who the bad guy(s) was/were or what he/they was/were doing, only that he wanted to kidnap Buddy's puppies (each with a different talent for sport), and maybe harvest their DNA. To make a new race of super soldiers or something. Wait! Weren't those the same villains from the last film? Like even the same actors? I apologize, but many details of this film immediately vanished from my head after seeing it.
Buddy (Shaq, Dakota, Shooter, Sniper and Tango, who now sound like the cast of characters from an '80s commando film) is still around to act as a guardian angel for Andrea. Andrea's conflicts seem kind of wimpy and toothless to me. Her biggest problems are her missing brother, and her first few days of 7th grade (which, to be fair, is a horrible time in anyone's life). But this seems lightweight and paltry compared to the death of a parent that Josh had to go through. Well, I guess she lost her dad too, but she was a baby. As a result, though, all the drama takes on a compulsory quality, and the entire affair becomes even blander. As with all the films, we're waiting for the moment when Buddy steps in to play the sport. Tammy and Andrea take up baseball. Tammy is great at it, Andrea not so much, Buddy, it turns out, can actually hit a ball by holding a bat in his teeth and swinging his head. Well, more like turning his head. The sight of a dog hitting baseballs is kind of hilarious.
And there's a big game with the Timberwolves and the evil opponents. And, thanks to Buddy, the Timberwolves win. We've seen it before at this point.
Comedian Doug Funk has a striking cameo as a mailman/announcer. Something tells me he overacted to amuse himself, as his line readings reminded me of Artie from The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Octogenarian actor Patrick Cranshaw appears in this film, too, and it's a pleasure to see him. He was also in the fifth film, and Air Buddies, one of his last roles.
There's also a subplot about Tammy wanting to drop out of baseball because Andrea sucks at it, and she'd rather they be together. Tammy is the most tenacious, talented and conflicted person. Why is she the supporting character? And why am I getting this upset over the fourth Air Bud movie? And why did we need a baby? Yes, there's a cute baby and a cute dog in this film. W.C. Fields would have loved it.
The fifth film in the series is where we tie things up. On to…
NEXT: Witney polishes his gun for a look at 'Air Bud Spikes Back,' and the sequels to Air Bud that may not even exist…
AIR BUD SPIKES BACK (2003)
Directed by: Mike Southon
Mike Southon, as I have said before, was the cinematographer on the first few Air Bud films, and is now directing for the first time. This veteran DP has directed one feature film in his career. This is it.
Of all the films in the series, this one is easily the most obnoxious. In addition to a chirpy pseudo-romance between Andrea and a new boy next door, we have a doting gramma played by Edie McClurg, a cutesy parrot, a pair of villains that make the bad guys from Baby's Day Out look like the bad guys from Rififi, and we have… Noah.
Let me tell you about how much I hate Noah in this film. I hate Noah with the fiery passion of a thousand exploding suns. I hate Noah to the point of bulletproof nausea. Noah is like itching power for your eyeballs. A human (?) manifestation of a recessed molar. Never in this history of cinema – and I include grating, squeaky anime girls in this statement – has there been a character more obnoxiously cloying. There is something loathsomely apocalyptic in this little boy's presence in this movie. I don't want to slag on Jake Smith, the young actor playing Noah, as he was likely too young to properly analyze his function in this film. But I did sit in my darkened apartment, a pile of cocaine on my chest, watching the fifth Air Bud film, polishing a gun. For a few brief, desperate moments of that 90-minute period, it was either me or the TV.
Anyway, with that out of the way, I can move onto the movie, and gripe vaguely about how bland it is. So get this: Tammy (still Chantal Strand) is now moving away to San Diego. Andrea (now Katija Pevec) is just as broody about the fact. To be fair, though, the two girls seem to have a genuinely close relationship, and their pained few opening scenes where they wistfully bid each other farewell feel kind of genuine. Mom (still Stevenson) is too busy mothering THAT HORRIBLE SPAWN OF NYARLATHOTEP'S FETID PIT – excuse me, Noah – to pay too much attention. Pevec is a fine young actress, I suppose, but seeing Andrea mutate so much over the course of the films has us losing her vital arc. This new Andrea so differs from the last one, she may as well be an entirely new character.
Buddy is still living with the Framms, of course, and Time Lord Patrick is now played by Alf Humphreys. Maybe that's why Noah is so monstrous; his father is a shape-shifting netherbeing.
The sport this time? Beach volleyball. Andrea has a new neighbor in the form of skater hipster Connor (Tyler Boissonnault), who is reportedly from San Diego, but who is clearly Canadian; he actually says “aboot” several times. He has a cool hairdo, and seems way more laidback than everyone around here, which is odd as Fernfield seemed like such a laidback place to begin with. Connor introduces Andrea to beach volleyball, which she tries out and is not very good at. I do like, actually, that Andrea is not much of an athlete. It's odd to see kids playing beach volleyball in what is supposed to be Washington, but is clearly Canada. As a native of Los Angeles, I can say for sure that these beaches leave much to be desired. The volleyball scenes are, perhaps, a little too sexy for their own good, as there are too many loving close-ups of 14-year-olds' bare midriffs for comfort. Well, I guess they are merely in swimsuits. Maybe I'm the pervy one.
Andrea resolves to get better at the game, as she wants to win the prize money and the free trip to SD to hang out with Tammy. Andrea also has a wacky montage where she takes on several other jobs to raise the money, including a high-end pet-sitter. Then Buddy accidentally breaks some stuff, and her efforts are stymied. The folks leave town, and the kids are looked after by Edie McClurg and her talking parrot. Noah rants endlessly about ice cream. Man that little hellion sure loves his ice cream. I HOPE YOU CHOKE ON IT, DEMON STAIN! *Ahem*, excuse me.
Yes, Buddy learns that he can, like a basketball, bounce a volleyball off of his teeth, and pass it to teammates. What a cute dog.
And, yes, there are the required bad guys, and they want to kidnap Buddy and force him to steal a diamond by fitting through an air vent. The air vent, by the way, is big enough to walk through, but the thieves – a pair of obnoxious bumblers – are too stupid to figure that out. I understand we're not meant to admire or sympathize with jewel thieves in a kids' movie, but by making them so dumb, it kind of takes the edge off of their ability to cause actual harm. Remember that weird clown from the first film? That guy was actually scary and kind of unsettling. Yes, I just cited Air Bud as a positive example.
Again, all is bland, and all ends as you'd expect. Although Andrea and Tammy make a vow to visit one another every year. That's sweet.
POSSIBLE OTHER FILMS:
Evidently, there was an Air Bud film made somewhere around 2008 called Air Bud: Aussie Rules, wherein Buddy goes to Australia to play rugby. From the video box, I intuit that there is also a cute kangaroo in the film. However, finding videos of this film is a dubious affair, and I'm unsure if it should even be counted as canon. One website I found even goes so far as to give a plot synopsis, and even indicates that Kevin Zegers has returned. Evidence of this film is spare, and I actually kind of doubt it was ever made.
Even less evidence exists of Air Bud: The Big Puck (c. 2009), wherein the dog plays hockey, and Air Bud: All Fours (c. 2010) where he plays golf. Although the subtitle “All Fours” sounds like he should be playing poker. How poetic if Buddy should go out playing poker. The last shot of the film should be a recreation of those famous C.M. Coolidge paintings.
From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Disney came up with a new formula. Their characters were all exactly the same flavor of blandly heroic, the conflicts were all the easiest to deal with, and the resolutions were never ambiguous, and always fun and easy. During this span, they codified, commodified, and streamlined this formula to within an inch of its life. Watch any given straight-to-video Disney-owned film in this period – even if it's an oddball sequel to one of their well-known hits (Bambi II anyone?) – and you'll find that it is exactly the same as any other. The same goes for their factory-like TV shows. And while the 1997 Air Bud was kind of an animal unto itself, by the time we got to the straight-to-video sequels, we could actually begin to trace the origins and movement of the bland Disney storytelling habit.
I feel that Air Bud's movement from something vaguely meaningful to something outright bland was not the usual law of diminishing returns as usually dictated by most long-running film series, but is more an indicator of marketing evolution, and general taste-making trends. More than any other film sequels, the straight-to-video Air Bud films were a commodity. A property. I imagine the Air Buddies films go even further down that rabbit hole. There is, after all, little reason to continue the adventures of a basketball-playing dog, no matter how cute it is.
And look at me. I gave into mocking the premise, just like all the people I lambasted at the outset of this long-ass essay. To end on a positive not, and to be perfectly fair: Air Bud is a fine family film that is well acted enough, surprisingly well-shot, and has enough actual human darkness to survive as an entity unto itself. To reiterate: If your kid decides he's all about Air Bud, you should be thankful. He could, after all, have picked something a lot stupider.
And Noah. Oh… Noah…