Monday, September 1, 2008

I Am An Air Bud Apologist

There are a few movies in each generation that stick in childhood minds more than others. Disney animated films are ubiquitous, but some children don't latch onto them. I have my favorite Disney animated films, but there are live actions ones I thoroughly enjoyed. Bedknobs and Broomsticks for instance, is a great memory from my childhood, as is Mary Poppins. In later years, there were many Disney films I watched on video, but one theatre experience stands out from all the rest: 1997's Air Bud.

It's easy to say that because of a series' later disasters, the original loses some respect, but I beg to differ. I feel like Air Bud has a ton of classic moments in my childhood that the later sins of Golden Reciever, 7th Inning Fetch, and the like cannot sour.

Most kids from the 90s know the story. "Buddy" the golden retriever with the ability to hit a ball with his muzzle, belongs to a mean, abusive clown named Norman Snively (they really stayed impartial on the character with that name, didn't they?), but escapes. Josh Framm's family has just moved to a new home in Washington state after the death of his father, and is too shy to play basketball, the sport he loves. Of course, the boy meets the dog, the boy tries out for the team after meeting the school's "engineer" (who's actually a retired ex-player for the New York Knicks), and Buddy becomes the accidental team mascot after demonstrating his ability to hit the ball into the basket with his muzzle. There's a generic underdog plot going on here for the basketball team, but there's also much more subtle commentary that I only picked up on vaguely as a child, but now notice and commend the filmmaker's for including.

There are three moments that raise Air Bud out of the realm of forgettable and repetitive children's fare, and have stuck in my mind forever.. First, there is the demon of a basketball coach at Josh's school. After the first game Josh plays (one in which Buddy runs onto the court and causes a commotion), one of his teammates has repeatedly dropped the ball. During a thrillingly annoying speech from Josh's principal, he sees Buddy running back towards the gym, where everyone finds the coach chucking basketballs at the poor kid. There's only one light on in the gym, directly above the boy being struck by basketballs. I know mean coaches now, but back then I was scared by this guy, and I'll never forget the principal's line "That'll be enough coach...that'll be enough."

Second, there's the ball hog of the team, Larry Willingham (played by Brendan Fletcher, who went on to appear in the Nickelodeon series Caitlin's Way and The Onion Movie). He's your generic ball hog that always wants the ball and hates his teammates, but his dad is one of the first onscreen examples of terrible athlete parents I ever saw. Mr. Willingham is essentially a second coach for the team in yelling at his son for small mistakes, and eventually yanks his son off the team to move to Spokane so he can play for another team. Obviously this team in Spokane is who Josh's school plays against in the championship, giving the "good guys" a chance to defeat the meddling father who should stay out of his son's athletic life and let him choose what to do. I've seen parents destroy their children's athletic dreams due to too much pressure to succeed. Even my friends at Stanford notice Michelle Wie's parents and their horrible meddling into their daughter's life.

The third moment is perhaps the most heartbreaking. When Snively sees Buddy on television, he comes back to claim the dog. Josh breaks Buddy out before the championship basketball game, and attempts to set Buddy free, but the dog won't understand that he has to leave his new owner. Josh is forced to yell "Get!" at the dog repeatedly, ending in screaming with tears rushing down his cheek before throwing a basketball for Buddy to chase in the wrong direction before running away. I own a golden retriever, and I think of Air Bud every time I play with her, and that scene still brings a little tear to my eye. Giving up a dog, or watching a pet separated from its owner, is always heartbreaking.

I'm a sucker for dogs, underdog stories, and movies from my childhood, and Air Bud hits all three of those buttons. Call me soft, sentimental, or hypocritical for liking these movies, but I distinctly believe that there is a difference between what we find great, and what we personally like. Can I apologize for the terrible lighting in much of this film? Or the overacting by Josh's mom and several of the kids? No, but I don't care, I find the dog story incredibly enthralling, and I will always stick up for this movie.

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