When I last checked on the "Air Bud" saga, it was 1997, and the film spotlighted a mute Golden Retriever developing his basketball court skills. Now comes "Santa Buddies," which contains a posse of gifted canines, blessed with the ability to talk and, in some cases, breakdance. Either my popcorn has been laced with PCP or I've been away from the franchise too long. Slipping into a pure fantasy realm of pooch pranks and seasonal lessons, "Santa Buddies" also hopes to celebrate the holidays with a gentle doggie adventure, reworking the classic Santa mythos with an eye toward four-legged mischief.
The magical spirit of Christmas, contained within a North Pole icicle, is dying, leaving Santa (George Wendt) and companion Santa Paws (voiced by Tom Bosley) fearful about the future of the holiday. Saddled with the coming responsibility of Christmas, Puppy Paws (Zachary Gordon) has doubts, looking fondly at life as an average dog. Hitching a ride to suburban Washington, Puppy Paws meets up with the Buddies gang of pooches, including budding rapper B-Dawg (Skyler Gisando), meditative Buddha (Field Cate), and troublemaker Budderball (Josh Flitter). Looking to his new friends to teach him the way of the tail, Puppy Paws instead incites the wrath of merciless dog catcher Stan Crudge (Christopher Lloyd), who traps the clueless pup, threatening to finish off Christmas for good.
Turned into a full-fledged franchise, these "Air Buddies" film have stormed the DTV market, offering parents a mild G-rated alternative to garish animated product, while encouraging an appreciation for dogs and their rascally ways. However, while "Air Bud" was rooted in a sense of realism (a gifted, highly trained pooch), the "Air Buddies" pictures are more cartoon in nature, parading a line of talking dogs fitted with lukewarm CG accouterments and fully sassed out by the screenwriting. Removing the natural movements and personality of the dogs is disappointing (turning the pups into rigid zombies when they speak), but the adjustments are appreciable, considering the toddler demographic these films are aimed towards.
"Santa Buddies" submits a Christmas story for the younglings to devour, taking matters to the North Pole to showcase a few budgetary minded toy workshop locations. Holiday spirit flows through the film by way of a colorful production design, a cast of spirited elves, and plenty of music to help boost the mood. The plot is a little on the soggy side, with Puppy Paws stumbling through misadventures as the Buddies offer him an education on average dog concern (e.g. treats and play). The picture amplifies the hijinks with a few "fo shizzles" sprinkled in the dialogue to make parents cringe, but it's a harmless, low-budget affair that seems to be more interested in pushing holiday cheer than ruining Saturday afternoons.
The AVC encoded image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) is very nice for this sort of low-budget production. Christmas colors take precedence during the presentation, and offer a nice pop to the proceedings, with Santa's toy workshop giving off the range of comforting holiday hues and North Pole vistas contributing a startling blue glow. The HD photography allows for a crisp image with nice, pure blacks and natural skintones. Detail is generally good, revealing the painful limits of the CG work during the canine conversation scenes (along with the breakdance sequence, where the real dog and its special effect twin don't even match). However, EE is spotted throughout the film, diluting the presentation a few notches.
The DTS-HD 5.1 sound mix offers seasonal delights with a tempered effort, giving soundtrack and scoring selection a nice boost when called upon, but rarely elevating the mix to stunning levels of submersion. Dialogue is consistent, with canine "voices" always bright and pronounced. A few musical numbers fill out the sound experience, and some LFE action comes rumbling in when Santa's sleigh hits the heavens. Surround activity is minimal, reserved for North Pole atmospherics and the film's few moments of action.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
"Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (2:33) is a music video from the impossibly coiffed Steve Rushton, who takes obnoxious emo hair in a disturbing new direction. He also mangles a classic song, giving the tune a pinched, Radio Disney sheen it doesn't need.
"Sing Along to Christmas Carols with the Buddies" (3:33) offers three songs to belt out with the pups: "Santa Paws is Coming to Town," "Deck the Halls," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
With Santa in trouble, the Buddies spring into action, taking over for fatigued reindeer to save Christmas, also offering mean old Crudge an opportunity to warm his frozen heart. It's a tidy story, but never remarkable, and a few burp jokes reveal disconcerting limitations to the goodwill of the film. Still, "Snow Buddies" gets the job done coasting on the appeal of lovable dogs and endearing holiday worship.
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