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Air Bud: Special Edition DVD Review

Air Bud (1997) movie poster Air Bud

Theatrical Release: August 1, 1997 / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Charles Martin Smith / Writers: Paul Tamasy, Aaron Mendelsohn (screenplay); Kevin DiCicco (character)

Cast: Michael Jeter (Norm "Happy Slappy" Snively), Kevin Zegers (Josh Framm), Wendy Makkena (Jackie Framm), Bill Cobbs (Arthur Chaney), Eric Christmas (Judge Cranfield), Jay Brazeau (Referee 1), Nicola Cavendish (Principal Pepper), Brendan Fletcher (Larry Willingham), Norman Browning (Buck Willingham), Stephen E. Miller (Coach Barker), Shayn Solberg (Tom), Chris Turner (Greg), Christine Kennedy (Melissa), Jessebel Mather & Kati Mather (Andrea Framm), Buddy the Dog (Buddy "Air-Bud")

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Since his father died a year ago, twelve-year-old Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) has been quiet and withdrawn. Moving with his mom and young sister to Fernfield, Washington adds outsider status to Josh's persistent loneliness. The boy even makes his flair for basketball private, settling for a manager position on his new school's competitive, disciplined team.
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When he's not washing towels and uniforms, Josh makes the acquaintance of an apparently stray Golden Retriever. As boy and dog often do in films, the two become pals.

Although she's leery of the messes (with instant good reason) and insists "Found" flyers are posted, Josh's mom (Wendy Makkena) sees the positive change that the friendship brings to her son and by Christmas morning, "Buddy" is gift-wrapped and welcomed into the family.

The dog's highly unusual penchant for shooting hoops leads him to be embraced by Fernfield's community and the Timberwolves team, especially. While Josh joins the squad as a player, Buddy becomes mascot, halftime act, and inspiration with the nickname "Air Bud." When the big game arrives, chicken pox and a foul out leave coach Arthur Chaney (Bill Cobbs) with no choice but to let Air Bud suit up as the fifth Timberwolf on the court.

In "Air Bud", Once-sad 12-year-old Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) finds fall fun with his new best friend, the stray Golden Retriever he names Buddy. Bill Cobbs plays Arthur Chaney, 1950s New York Knick-turned janitor-turned grade school coach, seen here training the Timberwolves with an invisible basketball.

Not many could have foreseen Air Bud spawning a major franchise and a genre onto itself. Released to theaters at the beginning of August 1997, this PG-rated family drama earned back its reported $4.7 million budget in just one weekend and went onto gross a respectable $23 M by the end of summer. That wasn't in the same range as Disney's other big earners that season (a class topped by George of the Jungle, Hercules, and Touchstone's Con Air), but the profit margin was certainly ahead of the curve.

That explains why the gifted Bud (actually, his real-life offspring) was enlisted for a quartet of sequels centering on other sports: the theatrically-released football flick Air Bud: Golden Receiver in 1998, and the straight-to-DVD Air Bud: World Pup (soccer, 2000), Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (baseball, 2002) and Air Bud Spikes Back (volleyball, 2003). The Air Bud brand lives on today with his five distinctive puppies who instead of dazzling with athletics have entertained with CGI-enabled speech. You may dispute the entertaining part, but the fact stands that the series' three most recent such releases (2006's Air Buddies, 2008's Snow Buddies, and this year's Space Buddies) have sold ridiculously well.

There is no doubt that the success of the chatty Buddies movies have prompted Disney to go back and revisit "the original Bud that started it all" (the case's words) in this new Special Edition DVD. Air Bud was one of the studio's first standard DVDs, released on February 3, 1998. This reissue dabbles in questionable advertising by prominently placing Budderball, Mudbud, B-Dawg, Rosebud, and Buddha on the front cover for their (presumably recast) vocal presence on an audio commentary.

Like his namesake Michael "Air" Jordan, Air Bud has been known to let his tongue wag while wrapped up in a bit of basketball heroics. As Norman Snively, Michael Jeter gets top billing but spends his limited screentime covered either in clown makeup or mud.

Someone entering this movie expecting the broad antics of the talking pup sequels will be surprised, but in a good way, as long as they're able to accept their kids won't be seeing those goofy young Retrievers breaking wind and cracking wise. Air Bud is much better than the little I've seen of the seven movies that have followed it.
Having reviewed Space Buddies just three weeks ago, it is all too evident how tonally different the latest installments are from this original. Air Bud is earnest, understated, and mildly touching in its first half. The boy-and-animal genre (usually boy and dog) is so abundant that you can't credit the framework with much originality. But Josh and Bud make for a likable pair with pudding cups, open windows, and a minimum of exposition and unreality.

At the midway point, things get a little shaky. The dog's original owner, a failure of a child party clown played by the late Michael Jeter (strangely top-billed), returns to lay claim to his previously-unnamed assistant. The audience knows he clearly does not deserve the Retriever, having called the upstaging hound into animal control before letting him fall off his precarious truck trunk and nearly get run over on a highway. But the film has a tough time translating this dramatic irony into just cause for Bud to stay with the Framms and neither muddy slapstick nor a ludicrous courtroom climax helps.

There are other problems, nearly all of them arising in the second half. But questions and curiosities abound, like how we enter a new year with colorful fall leaves on trees, what happens to the Timberwolves' tough previous coach after he's caught hurling basketballs at a player, and when did middle school basketball become such a big deal? Air Bud does attempt to answer one pressing query: an unregistered pooch is able to suddenly join the team in the middle of a game because there's nothing in the rulebook about dogs.

Of course, a family film about a basketball-playing canine needs to be cut some slack. And, although he doesn't slam dunk as the poster/cover artwork depicts, Buddy the Dog does indeed make several jump shots with his face. The credits insist no visual effects were used to achieve this. In which case, the original Buddy deserves kudos and though he passed away in 1998, his skills will not be forgotten anytime soon.

Air Bud provided a breakthrough for producer Keystone Pictures. Having previously only made R-rated, direct-to-video B movies, the Vancouver company would go on to make a number of animal-based comedies (including the MVP:... Primate trilogy), most of them G-rated, direct-to-video B movies distributed by Disney. Called Keystone Entertainment today, its top two employees Robert Vince and Anna McRoberts continue to write, direct, and produce all those lucrative Buddies sequels. Vince is credited here as producer, along with his brother William and his wife Anne. Also claiming producer credits on the film (though conspicuously not on the DVD cover) are American siblings Bob and Harvey Weinstein. They were then the heads of Disney's Miramax Films division, which is the one that actually acquired this independent picture despite the Walt Disney Pictures branding.

Buy Air Bud: Special Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (Spanish)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: March 3, 2009
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
White Keepcase in Holographic Cut-Out Cardboard Box

VIDEO and AUDIO

Lending this Special Edition its greatest value, the disc presents Air Bud in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, matching the film's theatrical aspect ratio, unlike its fullscreen previous DVD. Picture quality in this transfer offers marked improvement in detail and clarity over the old open matte presentation. The element is spotless, colors are appropriately vibrant, and sharpness satisfies. You can kind of tell this wasn't a major production when it was shot in just over a month during the fall of 1996, but nothing about the DVD makes you question that the image quality is top-notch by 2009 big studio standards.

At the free throw line, Air Bud gets an assist from a referee's pass. Still from Air Bud's original DVD - click to view screencap in full 720 x 480. Still from Air Bud: Special Edition DVD - click to view screencap in full 720 x 480.

Screencap from Air Bud's original 1998 DVD

Screencap from this 2009 Special Edition DVD

Compared to Air Bud's original fullframe DVD, this Special Edition gains some width,
loses some height, and offers a much more satisfying image.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also a step-up from the prior disc's two-channel surround mix, exhibiting greater force and dynamics. The audio is generally low key and not huge on rear channel separation, but the crisp elements show no sign of age. Atmosphere is achieved effectively in a few scenes and though far from a powerhouse, the sound delights.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Despite the Special Edition moniker, Air Bud's second DVD release contains just two on-disc extras and an on-package one.

The first and most prominently-billed bonus is the audio commentary by the Buddies. Despite what trailers for this DVD advertised, this in-character discussion, dubbed a "Dog-U-Commentary", is void of video. I suspect Robert Vince and Anna McRoberts may be voicing "parents" Buddy and Molly, who occasionally do speak seriously yet phonily about the film and actors.
(The dogs admit they're movie actors.) The others, the talking puppies of the sequels, basically reinforce their personalities with comedy attempts (Budderball talking food, B-Dawg being gangsta, etc.). The kids act impressed or interested, their elders are parental and cautioning, and somehow several sentimental moments emerge from that odd combination. I wonder how many people will appreciate this extended exercise, which seems too polished to be completely improvised. Based on the marketing, this could well serve as youngsters' introduction to the commentary format. It's kind of sad and quite cheesy, but certainly different.

Second is Air Bud's original theatrical trailer (2:12) in fullscreen. It was on the movie's initial DVD release too, but to get it here is still something of a pleasant surprise, as is the trailer's prevalent use of 2 Unlimited's "Get Ready for This."

"Y'all ready for this?" asks 2 Unlimited in their signature '90s song. It's heard in Air Bud's nicely included original theatrical trailer which closes with this dog-spinning-ball title logo. Kevin Zegers gets a moment in the center of the animated main menu montage for the Special Edition DVD given to his first of four Air Bud movie appearances. Notice the play calls for two humans and one dog.

The third special feature is the tangible one: a metal dog tag marked with "Buddy" and a paw print. Though some will question the value of such an inclusion, know that it fits comfortably around a full-grown man. I don't know if I'll ever take it off.

Like other DVD-with-jewelry packs, this one uses a thin cut-out cardboard box to house the standard case and dog tag. The faintly holographic outer box is a bit hard to get into
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(and warning, the stickers securing it shut might take up some of the rear cover with removal). The cardboard sheet the tag is affixed to provides a Buddy-free variation of the cover art, but the keepcase artwork simply repeats everything that otherwise covers it. Inside the case is a promotional Blu-ray booklet, a Disney Movie Rewards code, and no chapter insert.

After the now-standard Disney promo and FastPlay intro, previews play for Santa Buddies, Race to Witch Mountain, Bolt, and Disney Movie Rewards. Post-feature/menu trailers promote Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Schoolhouse Rock! Earth, Bedtime Stories, Monsters, Inc. Blu-ray, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, Pinocchio: Platinum Edition, and Disney XD.

The score-equipped menus are static and standard, save for the main menu which montages the film and provides the occasional themed graphic. In Canada, Seville Pictures' Air Bud DVD included a 19-still photo gallery. There is no equivalent of that here.

In need of a fifth player during the proverbial big game, Josh and the Fernfield Timberwolves welcome Buddy with open arms. Josh's mom Jackie (Wendy Makkena, "Sister Act") discusses the dog situation with him, while Buddy quietly looks on from upstairs.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Air Bud doesn't get much of a Special Edition,
with its main new extra being a feature-length reminder of how lame the series has gotten. Still, the film gets needed improvement in a feature presentation that merits no complaint. Unless you're a sucker for character dog tags, you'll probably find this DVD overpriced and underwhelming. It's also a missed opportunity to celebrate the film in usual ways (retrospection and deleted scenes). Still, if you like the movie, and up to a point I do, this is the version to pick up.

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Reviewed February 24, 2009.