Hollywood Century, 1997: In which there__s no rule that says a dog can__t play basketball
Not that one expects much out of a movie like Air Bud, but I still wasn't expecting it to reveal itself to be quite so vile quite so quickly. Very nearly the first thing that happens in the entire movie is a series of comic close-up shots of a little yellow bird, sitting on a tree, watching in amazed confusion as a truck with a giant clown head on its roof barrels down the road of a little town in Washington state. This bird never matters; it is not a character in the film, its opinions on the clown truck do not serve a purpose. It is simple an opportunity for actor-turned-director Charles Martin Smith to show off that he knows a thing or two about how editing works, and that the Kuleshov Effect can be used for evil as well as for good.
But anyway, Air Bud, a film whose considerable formal elements are not what I've gathered us here to discuss. You are perhaps wondering exactly what I have gathered us to discuss, given that Air Bud is not, I will boldly suggest, an especially important or interesting film. You know what is, though, is durable. Durable as a motherfucker. Not only did the film kick off four sequels, it also triggered a spin-off series and a spin-off of the spin-off, and we're now at the point where, sometime in 2015, the Buddiverse will welcome its 15th feature-length title. This feels kind of insane for a franchise whose target audience tops out around seven or eight years of age, but the Walt Disney Company doesn't play around when it comes to mining brands for extra revenue.
Like so many live-action Disney productions, Air Bud feels sort of like it was lab-created out of bits and pieces of already hidebound family comedies, and given a wardrobe and vocabulary that the middle-aged creators thought would be enough to freshen the whole thing up for The Kids These Days. In this particular case, we've got the classic "boy and his dog" scenario applied to a sports drama, with some very wobbly results. The situation goes thus: a golden retriever (Buddy, also of the execrable sitcom Full House, who died of cancer the year after Air Bud was released. If I just ruined your childhood, I am pleased, because these are some terrible things to have nostalgia for) runs away from his abusive clown owner, Norm Snively (Michael Jeter, weirdly receiving first billing for a teeny role), and hides out in the underbrush near an abandoned church. It is here that he's found by junior high student Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers), whose widowed mother (Wendy Makkena) has just moved the family into town while finding her footing. Thanks to the clown's training, Buddy - as Josh names the dog, whom he smuggles home before very long - is a whiz at handling a basketball, and this turns out be a boon when the school basketball team, for which Josh is manager, and later a player, needs itself a mascot. Of course, having a mascot dog that can shoot hoops is one thing (and it's a thing that drags Norm Snively out to reclaim his property, in a subplot that eventually involves a clichéd '30s-style "who are these kooks in my courtroom!?" finale), but having a dog that can actually play basketball in a competitive environment is another, and at no point has any human being ever started watching Air Bud in the ignorance of what was going to happen in the third act. Okay, not the courtroom scene. That came as quite a surprise, actually. But the scene of Buddy being a sports hero and saving the big game, that's pretty much the sole reason this film exists.
While we're idly waiting for Air Bud to get to the good part, Paul Tamasy & Aaron Mendelsohn's script flops around, flying through some plot developments and delaying others and stretching out moments randomly. I honestly don't know if it's the writing or directing that's responsible (though Smith's direction is so boringly competent, with the cleanliness and visual uniformity of a TV production, that I can't see how he could have gotten things off the rails just by himself), but Air Bud has legitimately awful pacing. It gets to the reveal that Buddy can play basketball almost immediately, and then makes absolutely no attempt to utilise that development for several reels; the return of Norm Snively happens at the worst time for the development of the "Josh learns self-reliance, teamwork, and discipline from playing sports, and from the wise black janitor/coach played by an obviously bored Bill Cobbs". For the last third of the movie, it's quite impossible to tell whether the film is a tween sports drama with a lengthy, distracting feint towards becoming a thriller about dog kidnapping, or if it's a family drama about protecting Buddy that rather oddly includes a lot of boilerplate sports movie nonsense while the plot is busy spinning its wheels.
The writing is so messy and aimless that when the film retrenches to generic kid flick mediocrity - like the slapstick dog bath scene, set without shame to "Splish Splash", or a slapstick car chase that ends with a truck plunging into water in a sequence that Smith's skills as director cannot manage to sell as funny in any way - it actually counts as a relief. For in those moments, at least Air Bud seems to have some awareness of what it is, and pursues its one goal with stronger focus than the inept balancing act between scenes and plotlines that leaves the film feeling directionless and overlong.
It's really astonishing just how terrible an innocuous kid's movie can actually be. Air Bud really is dreadful. It moves too arrhytmically to settle to a groove where it can be boring, and so it just keeps on being freshly irritating. The actors do the best they can with reedy material, and Zegers makes for a perfectly sturdy, it a little bit too sad-sacky protagonist, and the dog tricks are amusing enough once they start up (the "dog playing basketball" scene, with its dumbfounded reaction shots and befuddled dialogue, is legitimately enjoyable, though it comes about 70 minutes to late to do much good for the movie as a whole). But Air Bud is a toxic combination of blandly cheery aesthetic and stupid, sub-functional writing, and it ends up being a massively irritating pile of junk that isn't merely generic, disposable children's entertainment, it actually seems hellbent on making children less intelligent.
Meanwhile, I suppose you are wondering what in the hell this has to do with the development of American cinema between the years 1914 and 2014. Here's my pitch: the 1990s, that is to say the period from 1993-2001, seems to me a period in transition. The formulas that had fed the first Blockbuster Age in the 1980s had gone stale, the institutional memory of the 1970s kept prodding at the studios, which still at this point would fund midlevel dramas with some social import and character nuance for reasons other than hunting down Oscars, and there's a sense of trying to figure out a new vocabulary of big-budget popcorn cinema that could be sustainable over the long run. It is, in essence, a stretch of years where every Hollywood production, from top to bottom, seems to be looking back over its shoulder, and asking "what about this? can we make money doing this?".
And if there's anything that evokes the spirit of throwing shit against the wall just to see what happens and hope like hell it turns a profit better than the first entry in a low-budget 15-film Disney franchise of low-budget films about real-life dogs playing sports and having adventures, directed with sitcom-level artistry by a former member of the American Graffiti ensemble, I cannot imagine what it might possibly be.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1997
-James Cameron resinks the Titanic, makes enough money to have himself crowned King of the World
-Face/Off is the only film American-made John Woo film that anyone even pretends is any good
-Warner Bros. releases the terrible superhero movie Steel, starring basketball player and horrible actor Shaq, a relic of the days when feature films based on DC Comics properties were embarrassingly mismanaged clusterfucks
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1997
-Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, and its daunting ending, pisses off almost as many cinephiles as it delights
-Pedro Costa begins what will prove to be a trilogy of docu-narrative films set in the poverty-blighted Fontainhas district of Lisbon, with Ossos
-Bowing to complaints that the final episodes of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion were inscrutable, studio Gainax and director Anno Hideaki replace them with The End of Evangelion