Oh, the folly of youth. I remember seeing Air Bud a whole twelve years ago (twelve years!) when it hit theaters and being suitably entertained, and maybe that's the real litmus test for any Disney film. However, I always hate the notion that just because something's "for kids", people suddenly drop all pretense that it should be well-made. So while I'm not going to get up in arms about anyone showing their kids this harmless animal-sports comedy, the adult in me is here to warn nostalgic older viewers that the film has a terrible, terrible screenplay that trots out tired cliché after tired cliché in a desperate attempt to hit every mark on the "family movie" dartboard.
Josh Framm (a young Kevin Zegers) has just moved to a new town. Still saddened by the loss of his father, he keeps to himself at school until he discovers an old basketball court behind a church and forms a bond with its resident, a golden retriever with a flair for the game. Oh, I think I strained some brain muscles just typing that. I mean, sure, that's the premise; you have to take it or leave it. What I'm not so sure is necessary is the movie's insistence on having the typical "animal chaos" scenes, the "big game" climax, and a courtroom finale, which it saves for the very end as an added burden upon suspension of disbelief. It's a miracle the movie even has time, since a fair portion of its short runtime is composed of montages: basketball training, dog bonding and "hilarious" bathtub antics.
Wait, did I mention the wise old mentor janitor? Oh, it's terrible, but there are tinges of quality creeping in, as Bill Cobbs wears his character's backstory as a one-time Knicks player with admirable grace. Unfortunately, I'd be hard-pressed to say it registers around referees dimly exclaiming "There ain't no rule says the dog can't play!" (Common sense dictates such things, but I realize I'm meant to bite my tongue and enjoy the movie.) Strangely, the movie's serious moments manage somehow to not stick out like a sore thumb. Stephen E. Miller plays an abusive basketball coach, and Josh's unhappiness at his father's death is covered in a scene or two without becoming treacly.
Actor-turned-director Charles Martin Smith makes my homeland of the Pacific Northwest look fairly nice, but nothing spectacular is going on here in the technical department. The focus is predictably all on the dog, who gets plenty of extended slow-motion trick shots (no computers were used). The late Michael Jeter, capable of much better work, takes second-place in all of his scenes to the star canine, using his thespian skills to fall into cakes and slip in the mud, while alternating between a dirt-brown wifebeater and a terribly depressing clown outfit. He's credited first, but he's really barely in the movie, so fans with vague memories of his participation shouldn't get too excited.
"Get ready to be delighted, moved -- and amazed -- by Air Bud, a timeless Disney favorite!" the box proclaims. Uh huh. Again, this is pretty harmless stuff, but while the film seems to have built up a solid reputation amongst Disney's live-action oeuvre, it's nowhere near as good as some of their recent, more savvy theatrical material, which seems to aim a little higher. It's The Mighty Ducks meets Beethoven, and while kids will enjoy it, you can probably do better than this sadly dated glob of 90's family-film junk food.
This Special Edition comes packaged in an outer box with a white standard-size keep case inside. The outer box is designed to highlight the DVD's bonus trinket: a metal dog-tag with the name Buddy on it. Affixed to the front is a coupon will save you $6 if you also purchase the new smash hit Beverly Hills Chihuahua (erm, forget what I said about Disney's recent theatrical efforts...). The cover has an obnoxious banner taking up a third of the art promoting its sole special feature (more on that in a second), and inside is a Blu-Ray promo insert and a Disney Movie Rewards code.
While this release marks the first time Air Bud has been available in widescreen, this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is fairly suspect. Certain colors, like white, green and blue look unnaturally cranked up, which leads to visible edge enhancement during a lot of the film. The picture often looks flat as well, because contrast seems kinda mushy. Detail is okay, and I didn't see any print damage, but this is far from a reference-quality presentation.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is provided, and it's okay. Air Bud isn't much of a surround-sound movie, and the track is pretty simple: Dialogue through the front and everything else through the back. I certainly never felt immersed, but on the whole it does its job, blasting Brahm Wenger's Homeward Boundish score loudly and clearly. Spanish 2.0 is included as well.
Can I die now? Full disclosure: while there's only one major bonus feature on this DVD, and I have to be honest, I couldn't make it through what Disney refers to as a "Dog-u-Commentary". The DVD includes a trailer for the awful-looking Santa Buddies, the latest in a series of movies about Air Bud's puppy clan, and this is, most distressingly, an in-character audio commentary by the entire group. I can't fathom who this horribly scripted track is designed to entertain: what kid would want to sit still for an additional 98 minutes listening to an actor pretend to reminisce as the title dog ("Those cows were great to work with!"), while his "wife" and "kids" make wonderful observations like "Wow, you're good Dad, because you sure look nervous!" Whoever designed this evil, evil bonus feature deserves only the cruelest fate: they should be forced to listen to it every single day for the rest of their career.
The other extra is the movie's theatrical trailer, and trailers for Race to Witch Mountain, Bolt and the aforementioned Santa Buddies are also included.
Anyone who really, truly loves this movie might find it worth picking up for the presentation; while the transfer has several flaws, at least it's anamorphic OAR. The rest of us are better served by skipping it. The movie hasn't quite stood the test of time and the sole bonus feature on this so-called "Special Edition" is one of the worst things I've ever experienced in my entire life.