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Air Buddies is set in the quiet, family friendly village of Fernfield, where, we learn from the town's road sign, "everything is possible." Fans of the Air Bud movies understand that everything extends even to the idea of a golden retriever as sports hero. The original Air Bud, released in 1997, documents the title character's basketball brilliance. Subsequent releases showcase Bud's prowess in sports ranging from soccer to volleyball.
In installment No. 6, though, Air Bud has put his sports career on hold to nurture the young puppies he's fathered with Molly, a golden beauty living directly across the street. Apparently, he's also used his sports sabbatical to learn the English language, which he speaks as well as anyone I know. (Though in earlier Air Bud films our hero demonstrates no facility for talking, his new-found fluency goes unexplained.) Viewers who can accept this "upgrade" of the Bud character will be delighted to learn that every other animal in the movie also talks.
Old enough now to be given away to other families, Bud's "buddies," who all share a part of Dad's name (Rosebud, Mudbud, Budderball, Buddha, B-Dawg), decide to turn their separation anxiety into action. They run away from home. Meanwhile, madman animal trader Selkirk (an impossibly campy caricature of a goon) is commissioned by the affluent Nester to kidnap Air Bud as a gift for Nester's demanding son, Bartleby. So when inept henchmen Denning and Grim swoop in for the capture, they, of course, use the wandering pups as bait to reel in Bud and Molly.
Thus, with the help of the sheriff's bloodhound, Sniffer, it's up to the buddies to muster the teamwork needed to rescue their parents.
Air Buddies clearly espouses the value of cooperation; indeed, teamwork is the movie's central theme. Plot complications—albeit rather predictable ones—serve to build the puppies' interdependence as they unite around a common goal: the safe return of their parents. One puppy offers simply, "The only way we're going to find Mom and Dad is if we work together as a team." Through conflicts among themselves and with others, we see the puppies develop qualities of bravery and selflessness.
In a minor development—but one most parents will find refreshing—a young boy learns that there is more to life than video games, as one of the puppies encourages him to trade his hand-held gaming system for the good ol' outdoors. Similarly, while reviewing the profiles of puppy-adoption applicants, Buddha notes room for improvement in a show-off soccer player, a basketball player who lacks confidence and a T-baller with anger-management issues. An adult points out to Buddha that "you dogs could help them."
The movie gives special attention to the topic of running away, and—despite the fact that everything works out in the end—viewers are provided sufficient warning of its many dangers. Following his experiences on the run, one puppy concludes, "We ran away from our troubles instead of facing them." Finally, the movie illustrates the value of fairness and the consequences of wrongdoing. Fernfield's sheriff exposes the puppy thieves as frauds with the accurate, if clichéd, maxim "crime doesn't pay." Even very young children should be able to see through the dognappers' buffoonery to the reality that these "bad guys" had it coming.
Buddha, described as a "zen puppy, always meditating and doing that yoga stuff," serves as an inspirational figure and the voice of reason to the rest of the litter. While his spiritual leanings generally take the form of Star Wars-esque pointers ("Be one with the ball"), Buddha occasionally invokes the mystical philosophies of his namesake, as in a scene depicting meditation with the aim of "absorbing positive energies" and finding "inner peace." (This ritual receives more attention in the DVD's special features, where Buddha demonstrates his meditative techniques for the other puppies.)
When the puppies are told that their owners will be matching them with good homes, Buddha asks, "Did they consider the astrological possibilities?" He also expresses displeasure at the idea of running into one character "in the next life" and, in a gleeful moment, exclaims, "I've lived and gone to heaven."
If one takes the dogs' anthropomorphism too far, it could be argued that Bud and Molly's "relationship" lacks marital bonds. But in reality there's no sexual content in this PG-rated romp.
Desperate to get their paws on a fresh blueberry pie, the buddies tie up a housesitter with lengths of yarn. In a T-ball game, a youngster strikes out, growls, then chases and hits the umpire with his plastic bat. Selkirk and a friend engage in a fencing match. The puppies scrabble around and "fight" in a pileup. A goat butts Denning's bottom and head. Denning and Grim wrestle. Molly bites Denning on the ankle, ripping his pant leg. Selkirk whacks Grim's leg, then jams Denning's foot with a cane. Denning and Grim are lynched by a biker gang and strung up high on a drive-in movie screen. Various characters slip, trip, fall from haylofts and clunk their heads.
Much of this plays as slapstick, but some young viewers may be genuinely frightened when the puppies are trapped in a net. Similarly, a running joke about Denning and Grim being fed to a pacing tiger may push some kids' worry buttons.
Crude or Profane Language
Grim uses the word "jeez," while "sweet mama" is a favorite catchphrase of Budderball. "Dadgum" is used once and "gosh" three times. Selkirk, Denning and Grim often resort to name-calling and other put-downs, offering up "imbecile," "doofus" and "rat brains." The sheriff refers to the dognappers as "nincompoops." "Idiot," "peanut brain," "heck," "punk" and "butt" also make appearances. The young canines are referred to as "pooping-machine puppies." Human parents are dubbed "rents."
Drug and Alcohol Content
When it's established that Buddy and Molly were last seen in "wine country," Sniffer quips that he "prefers toilet water to the sheriff's merlot." Several key scenes take place in a wine cellar where bottles hang in racks. No humans are seen drinking, but after Budderball falls into a vat of wine, he emerges staggering and hiccupping. Through slurred speech he offers, "This is the weirdest grape juice ever."
Other Negative Elements
The puppies exhibit parental defiance in their decision to run away. They are also seen committing lesser fouls such as chewing shoes and shredding newspapers. B-Dawg is the standout rebel of the litter, at one point exclaiming, "No one tells me to take a nap!"
Several human characters are depicted as juvenile delinquents. Grim comes off as a lazy hanger-on who views his uncle's employment invitation as a nagging intrusion. Bartleby is the stereotypical rich-kid ingrate, dissatisfied with any birthday present but the fabled Air Bud. (To the filmmakers' credit, Bartleby ultimately takes to the lessons of fairness and teamwork the movie aims to teach.)
The subject of math takes a hit, as does eating your veggies.
As for this genre's obligatory potty homor, when another puppy pulls Budderball's paw, Budderball instantly lets one loose in a variation on the old "pull my finger" joke. This tasteless gag also serves as foreshadowing: Budderball later employs the same device to escape the clutches of Denning. (And the pup's affinity for passing gas is explored at greater length in the DVD's special features, where flatulence jokes are even referenced in several of the puppies' profiles.) Similarly, a skunk sprays Noah, Henry and Sniffer. When B-Dawg finds himself in a particularly scary predicament, he estimates that he is "going to need a pooper scooper."
Straight-to-video movies like this—and if you're a parent, you've likely seen many of them—set out to provide light laughs and teach some fundamentals on obedience and socially acceptable behavior. On this level, it generally succeeds—in an over-done, silly, excruciating-for-adults-to-watch sort of way. (Oh, and I guess it's fair to say hard-core dog lovers will relish the many scenes designed to make the little goldens look absolutely adorable.)
Too bad there's enough potty humor and mature subject references to make families think twice about bringing home Air Buddies. While you might easily dismiss Rosebud's "girl power" mantra as friendly boy-girl rivalry, the sight of an intoxicated puppy proves more troublesome. Alcohol-related gags set in a kids movie—even as in-jokes intended for only parents to catch—are about as charming as a boozy kindergarten teacher greeting her students at the door. At best, kids will be confused by them, asking parents to explain the puppy's strange behavior. At worst, the incident will evoke pain for children whose families have been hurt by alcoholism.
Smoking and drinking episodes used to log ample screen time in decades-old classic cartoons. But since then, these vices have been reclassified as legitimate social problems, their dangers widely documented. So why pin a portion of the buddies' madcap escapades on them? In 2006? (Not that Budderball's bender does anything in the way of bolstering the film's comedic value.)
Likewise, the Buddha character also raises issues. I'm not trying to over-think his name. But when he veers from plain-Jane advice-giving to referencing meditation practices, I start seeing yellow flags landing on the playing field.
"What's the harm?" some parents may ask. "I can talk these issues through with my kids." Probably so. But who wants to use as a "growing-up-in-the-real-world" conversation-starter a film nobody'll be able to (or want to) remember 10 minutes after it's over?
So I guess you could say Air Buddies tosses up an air ball. Maybe the next DVD installment, Air Buddies: Dueling With Dear Old Dad During the Teenage Years, or some such title, will pick up the rebound and do something more interesting—and more profitable—with it.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Abigail Breslin as the voice of Rosebud; Dominic Scott Kay as the voice of Buddha; Josh Flitter as the voice of Budderball; Skyler Gisondo as the voice of B-Dawg; Spencer Fox as the voice of Mudbud; Don Knotts as the voice of Sniffer; Slade Pearce as Noah; Christian Pikes as Henry; Patrick Cranshaw as Sheriff Bob; Paul Rae as Denning; Trevor Wright as Grim
Robert Vince ( MVP: Most Valuable Primate)