A comprehensive analysis of the Air Bud franchise

We watch and rank the greatest canine/sports movie series in American cinema history.

Words

Adam Woodward

It’s now a full 20 years since Walt Disney Pictures unleashed their sports-mad pooch protagonist on the world. To mark this cultural milestone, we decided to watch all five original Air Bud films back-to-back (NB: this excludes the seven Air Buddies sequels, which focus on the exploits of Buddy’s puppies, as well as the Santa Paws Christmas spin-offs.) What follows is a deep analysis of said series, with a definitive ranking at the end.

Air Bud (1997)

Directed by Charles Martin Smith
Starring Buddy the Dog, Kevin Zegers, Wendy Makkena

00:01:30 – During the opening credits sequence, a clapped-out clown car rolls into what appears to be a bucolic Seattle suburb. A sign reads, ‘Welcome to Fernfield: Where Everything is Possible’. The car pulls up outside a kid’s birthday party. A disgruntled clown emerges, as does Buddy dressed in a rather fetching red-and-white polka dot number. The clown threatens Buddy.

00:04:55 – The party is a total disaster and, somewhat unfairly, the blame is placed squarely on Buddy. On the road out of town, Buddy’s cage falls off the back of the trailer. An SUV rams the cage, freeing Buddy. A kid looks on from the back seat, clearly bemused. It’s not every day you see a dog in a clown costume.

00:07:58 – The kid’s name is Josh Framm (Kevin Zeggers). During a conversation between Josh’s mother, Jackie (Wendy Makkena), and the Fernfield High principal it is revealed that the Framms are new in town, and that Josh has been depressed ever since his father died in a test pilot accident.

00:12:08 – Josh discovers an abandoned basketball court.

00:14:58 – Despite his clear lack of ability, Josh tries out for the school basketball team. Coach Barker (Stephen E Miller) offers a few words of inspiration: “If you can win on the court, you can win in life.”

00:17:25 – While getting in some much-needed practice, Josh spots Buddy hiding in the bushes. His once gleaming clown costume has been reduced to soiled rags, alluding to the hard times he’s fallen upon. Buddy’s waggy disposition contradicts this stark mood.

00:19:12 – Back at home, Josh appears distracted.

00:19:50 – Ignorant of the fact that some dogs are lactose intolerant, Josh lures Buddy with a trail of vanilla pudding.

00:21:31 – Buddy enthusiastically takes to the court and demonstrates his mean jump shot.

00:24:35 – After Josh sneaks Buddy home, the pair share a tender bath time bonding moment.

00:27:40 – Buddy is introduced to the rest of the family but fails to make a good first impression.

00:32:02 – A quick browse of Buddy’s Wiki bio tells us that he also played Comet the Dog in the long-running sitcom Full House.

00:39:32 – It remains unclear whether Buddy will ever be accepted as a member of the family.

00:42:40 – It’s Christmas Day morning. Buddy is nowhere to be found. But wait, who’s that peering out from beneath the tree wrapped up in a green bow? Josh’s wish has come true. Merry Christmas!

00:44:24 – Josh is reminded of his father’s absence. Back on court, in a bid to console his grief-stricken owner, Buddy makes a succession of outrageous baskets.

00:48:20 – Having inexplicably made the team, Josh turns out for the Timberwolves’ first game of the season.

00:51:35 – During the second quarter, Buddy stuns the crowd by making a three-pointer from way downtown.

01:51:49 – One of the taglines used in the film’s marketing campaign was ‘He Sits. He Stays. He Shoots. He Scores.’

00:54:17 – After Coach Barker is let go for psychologically abusing one of the kids, the janitor (Bill Cobbs, channelling Bill Cosby/Scatman Crothers) takes over. Josh suspects that he is retired basketball legend Arthur Chaney. His unorthodox ‘invisible ball’ training sessions baffle the kids.

00:56:49 – Buddy is kitted out in a jersey and miniature Air Max. It is adorable.

01:02:05 – After an unlikely mid-season turnaround, the Timberwolves qualify for the state final against the Warriors.

01:02:53 – Jackie discovers a fortnight’s worth of newspapers buried in the front yard.

01:03:30 – The film takes a dramatic turn when Norm Snively (Michael Jeter), aka the nasty clown, claims rightful ownership of Buddy having witnessed him shooting hoops on television.

01:08:13 – Josh rescues/steals back Buddy.

01:10:54 – Buddy was reportedly trained to play various sports by Kevin di Cicco, who picked him up as a stray in 1989. It’s your classic wags-to-riches story.

01:11:12 – After feeding him yet more vanilla pudding, a visibly distressed Josh explains to Buddy that he’s left with no choice but to disown him.

01:11:45 – Golden Retrievers are fine and all, but when your central character’s default facial setting is ‘blissful insouciance’ every dramatic moment is rendered emotionally void.

01:13:02 – According to IMDb, Air Bud was filmed in under one month.

01:18:51 – With the Timberwolves down 20 points with seven minutes remaining, Buddy makes a late entrance and is immediately brought on for a game-changing cameo.

01:20:50 – The squad number on Buddy’s jersey is ‘K9’.

01:24:47 – Buddy makes a free throw, but drags his hind paws over the free throw line while the ball is mid-flight, making it a foul shot. Somehow the officials fail to spot the call.

01:25:10 – Buddy makes the second free throw, but again jumps across the line before the ball hits the basket. What game are these officials watching?!

01:25:48 – Article 4.3.2 of the International Basketball Federation official rulebook states that each team member must wear a shirt, shorts and socks. Buddy lacks two of the three required items of uniform, thus putting him in clear violation of this rule.

01:26:25 – Josh scores a buzzer-beater to win the game.

01:27:45 – The Framms are awarded full custody of Buddy following a bitter legal dispute. Outside the courtroom, Buddy savagely attacks the clown.

01:34:30 – The credits roll. In the pantheon of ‘animals playing sports’ movies, Air Bud unquestionably raised the bar.

 

Air Bud: Golden Receiver (1998)

Directed by Richard Martin
Starring Misc Golden Retrievers, Kevin Zegers, Cynthia Stevenson

00:00:31 – A stock establishing shot reveals that we’re back in Fernfield.

00:03:12 – Josh (Kevin Zegers), now in his early teens, attends a professional basketball game with his mother Jackie (Cynthia Stevenson) and sister Andrea (Alyson MacLaren). Buddy is left in the car, but quickly escapes and finds his way into the arena, whereupon he wreaks havoc.

00:06:09 – A friend of Josh’s tells him that high school chicks dig football players. Josh briefly entertains the notion of trying out for the team.

00:08:42 – We meet a Cruella Deville-esque Russian animal trainer named Natalya (Nora Dunn), who’s looking to add a star attraction to her travelling circus.

00:09:43 – Buddy watches Josh make a sandwich.

00:11:25 – Josh suggests that maybe it’s time his mother started dating again, before sabotaging her chances with the first respectable man she meets.

00:13:12 – While out rollerblading, a lonely Jackie pauses to confide in Buddy.

00:21:22 – At his first practice session, Josh impresses Coach Fanelli (Robert Constanzo) with his “killer arm”.

00:25:11 – Concerned by his lack of wag, Josh takes Buddy to the local vet, Dr Patrick (Gregory Harrison), who is now dating Jackie. In real life, Buddy the dog died of a rare form of soft tissue cancer on 10 February, 1998 (Wikipedia states that he died peacefully in his sleep). From Golden Receiver onwards, the role of Buddy was played by various Golden Retriever dog actors. This sequel is dedicated to his memory.

00:27:47 – Buddy reveals that his aptitude for basketball also applies to football.

00:29:39 – A bureaucratic faculty member expresses concern that the football team hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years. If only they could find a secret weapon…

00:32:15 – Considering he’s a Seahawks fan, Coach Fanelli’s loose grasp of defensive coordination is surprising.

00:35:55 – Josh’s big moment arrives when the starting quarterback dislocates his shoulder in the opening game of the season. Josh gets sacked on the very first play and the opposition runs in the resulting fumble for a touchdown.

00:36:31 – On the next play, Buddy saves Josh’s blushes by making a stunning catch. The crowd goes berserk.

00:45:10 – In game two, Buddy — sporting a Timberwolves jersey and retro leather helmet — rushes for 72 yards, makes four receptions, forces two fumbles and scores three touchdowns.

00:50:43 – The film’s tagline, ‘Just Dog It’, is a play on Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan.

00:51:33 – The Timberwolves breeze through the playoffs via a euphoric montage.

00:53:48 – Patrick proposes to Jackie, upsetting an increasingly petulant Josh.

00:55:01 – After Josh runs away, Buddy is snatched by Natalya and transported to a secret dock-side warehouse in an ice cream van.

00:58:12 – Following a man-to-man with Coach Franelli, Josh returns home, only to find that Buddy is missing.

01:03:17 – As the Timberwolves prepare to kick off against the Giants, Buddy is freed by a dungaree-clad chimpanzee. Together they release the other animals.

01:06:42 – Buddy and co rise up against Natalya and her hapless cohort, Popov (Perry Anzilotti). During a showpiece physical comedy scene, a skunk sprays Natalya in the face.

01:10:39 – Coach Franelli is seen clutching a can of Coca Cola in virtually every scene he’s in.

01:12:11 – After successfully commandeering the ice cream van from the chimp, Natalya and Popov attempt to run Buddy over. Patrick intervenes.

01:15:35 – Air Bud is back! And just in the nick of time, with the Timberwolves down three scores in the fourth quarter.

01:16:30 – The Timberwolves run a textbook reverse-sweep and Buddy charges downfield for a TD. Teamwork makes the dream work, folks.

01:22:21 – Buddy gets flattened by an outside tackle and is forced to leave the field. Unflustered, The Timberwolves snatch victory in the dying seconds.

01:25:30 – Patrick and Josh share an awkward moment as they attempt to reconcile their differences.

01:26:12 – In characteristically maverick fashion, Buddy invades the pitch during a Seahawks vs 49ers game.

01:29:31 – Despite essentially being a shot-for-shot remake, Golden Receiver lacks the uncomplicated charm of the original.

 

Air Bud: World Pup (2000)

Directed by Bill Bannerman
Starring Misc Golden Retrievers, Kevin Zegers, Caitlin Wachs

00:01:08 – The film opens on Jackie (Chilton Crane) and Patrick’s (Dale Midkiff) wedding day. Buddy, acting as an usher, has forgotten the ring.

00:03:31 – On his way home to fetch the ring, a luxuriant russet bitch catches Buddy’s eye.

00:06:13 – At the reception, Buddy entertains a group of kids by nudging a soccer ball around. A dog catcher watches on ominously from some nearby bushes.

00:09:17 – Despite his obvious commercial value, at no point does anyone deem it necessary for Buddy to wear a collar.

00:15:51 – Josh (Kevin Zegers) sizes up some tail of his own, an English soccer coach and fellow student named Emma (Brittany Paige Bouck, who judging from her accent is almost certainly not English).

00:18:01 – A joke is made in reference to America’s lack of interest in, and basic knowledge of, soccer.

00:21:10 – During training, Buddy slams home a penalty kick.

00:23:42 – Montage time! Buddy puts in a match-winning performance, cementing his reputation as a big game player.

00:30:43 – A friend of Josh’s confidently informs him that chicks dig guys with good fashion sense.

00:32:39 – At a classy soirée Emma’s father (Duncan Regehr) and their black housemaid, Mrs Brimstone (Patricia Idlette), exhibit equally unconvincing British accents.

00:36:21 – Buddy has somehow managed to dig a tunnel into next door’s garden. He uses it to bring his love interest, Molly, a baguette.

00:39:22 – In the Timberwolves next game, Emma hits an absolute worldy from all of 25 yards. Not to be outshone, Buddy bags a first-half hat-trick.

00:43:38 – Josh takes Emma to the movies to see a film called ‘Ninja Bloody Ninja’. Buddy and Molly opt for a quiet night in.

00:46:07 – After a disastrous first date, Emma accuses Josh of being a “twit” and a “hipster”.

00:49:06 – Buddy shows Josh how to rock a pair of shades.

00:49:53 – The Timberwolves are expelled from the league for fielding an ineligible player (Buddy). No one mentions the fact that he has previously appeared for two separate Fernfield High teams.

00:52:10 – In a scene reminiscent of 101 Dalmatians, Molly goes into labour. Buddy becomes the proud father of six.

00:56:45 – The Timberwolves are reinstated into the league. Despite lacking match sharpness, Buddy extends his purple patch.

00:59:16 – This is really starting to drag now. Perhaps thinking of dog-related puns of famous footballer’s names will help pass the time…

01:00:01 – The puppies are stolen by a pair of heartless goons. Their motivations are vague.

01:02:50 – At the league championship game between the Timberwolves and the Springbrook Spartans, former United States women’s national soccer team goalkeeper Briana Scurry is introduced to the crowd. Buddy, Josh and Emma are conspicuous by their absence.

01:04:36 – Stan Colliemore, Spaniel Sturridge, Emile Husky…

01:06:25 – Against the run of play, the Timberwolves take the lead.

01:11:20 – After the bad guys have an unexplained change of heart, the puppies are saved and our all-star trio head to the stadium.

01:13:17 – Buddy is promptly subbed on and buries a header into the top corner with seconds left on the clock.

01:14:28 – The defeated Spartans are refreshingly magnanimous in defeat. Briana Scurry personally congratulates Buddy.

01:15:00 – Four months later at the Women’s World Cup, team USA edge out Norway in a tournament deciding penalty shootout. The winning save is pulled off by – you guessed it – Buddy. Who needs opposable thumbs when you’ve got a winning spirit, eh?

01:18:24 – You know the feeling when something you enjoyed as a kid turns out to be really, really bad for you, like Sunny D and Rolf Harris? This is rapidly becoming one of those moments.

 

Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (2002)

Directed by Robert Vince
Starring Misc Golden Retrievers, Caitlin Wachs, Patrick Cranshaw

00:00:12 – The first post 9/11 Air Bud opens with a harrowing scene in which Buddy, dressed as a firedog, heroically drags injured civilians from the burning rubble of the World Trade Center. Just kidding, it’s more of the same.

00:01:32 – A pair of cartoonishly evil scientists hatch a plan to harness the “super sporting gene” from Buddy and his puppies with a view to marketing it as a new performance enhancing drug.

00:03:46 – Picnic time with the Framms. Josh (Kevin Zegers) appears to have a new stepfather, although no one mentions anything about this.

00:10:40 – Heartrending scenes as Josh says his goodbyes before leaving for college. The film’s focus switches to Josh’s previously irrelevant younger sister, Andrea (Caitlin Wachs).

00:13:38 – Josh gives Andrea their father’s watch. This is the first time the watch has been featured in any of the Air Bud films.

00:15:12 – The scientists appear to be operating under the command of a racoon named Rocky. It’s possible that Rocky has some incriminating pictures of the men.

00:20:35 – There are an alarming amount of Golden Retrievers in this town.

00:21:01 – Buddy continues his irritating habit of embarrassing the Framm kids at school.

00:24:32 – For no discernible reason, Andrea decides to try out for the school baseball team.

00:27:17 – Director Robert Vince also helmed the 2000 chimpanzee/ice hockey caper MVP: Most Valuable Primate and its skateboarding-themed 2001 follow-up MVP: Most Vertical Primate.

00:32:38 – Buddy’s basketball ace pup, Shooter, is shown wearing sweatbands while taking part in a pick-up game. As everyone knows, Dogs don’t sweat, so this is presumably a fashion choice.

00:35:17 – Buddy reveals himself to be a world-class baseball player, to the surprise of no one.

00:36:12 – Sheriff Bob (Patrick Cranshaw, who played Joseph “Blue” Pulaski in Old School) is alerted to the disappearance of Shooter.

00:37:30 – The film’s title is a reference to a spectator tradition known as the seventh-inning stretch, where fans stand up and stretch out their arms and legs between the halves of the seventh inning of a game.

00:38:44 – After her friend Tammy (Chantal Strand) picks up an injury, Andrea seals her place in the Timberwolves starting roster during the obligatory winning-streak montage sequence.

00:42:29 – Must remember to cancel that monthly donation to Dogs Trust.

00:46:12 – When three more puppies, Striker, Shaq and Tango, go missing, a concerned Buddy decides to take matters into his own paws.

00:48:34 – Andrea and Buddy find time to hit the practice field.

00:50:14 – Wait, weren’t there six puppies originally? What happened to the other two?

00:53:12 – Buddy puts his ongoing domestic crisis aside to help the Timberwolves to a narrow victory over their local rivals, boosting their play-off hopes.

00:59:47 – Rocky the racoon’s sinister intent is reinforced.

01:06:42 – Buddy is reunited with his pups. Unfortunately, this occurs in the scientists’ trailer/laboratory.

01:09:28 – The Timberwolves are down 4-0 in the junior championship game. Even the previously animated commentator appears to be losing interest.

01:11:50 – Andrea rescues Buddy and the puppies, no thanks to Sheriff Bob. She and Tammy race across town to rejoin the team.

01:15:16 – Some sloppy play by the opposition infield allows the Timberwolves back into the game.

01:13:28 – Despite being a family film, Seventh Inning Fetch features prominent advertising for Bud Light, who at this point have all but missed the opportunity to cash-in on the franchise’s popularity.

01:19:20 – The Timberwolves are down four in the ninth. They’re going to need a miracle to win this one…

01:24:56 – Josh returns home from college just in time to watch Andrea ding one way downfield to clinch the game for the Timberwolves.

01:27:40 – In a familiar coda, Buddy is drafted to the Los Angeles-based Anaheim Angels. In his rookie season he leads them to the World Series and – after making a final-out catch from first base – is named MVP.

01:28:50 – Seventh Inning Fetch is surely the nadir of the Air Bud franchise.

 

Air Bud: Spikes Back (2003)

Directed by Charles Martin Smith
Starring Misc Golden Retrievers, Katija Pevec, Tyler Boissonnault

00:01:12 – Having mastered the three most popular sports in America — and soccer — Buddy is ready for a new challenge. The opening credit sequence promises a special guest appearance from professional volleyball player, swimwear model and sometime actress Gabrielle Reece.

00:03:49 – In keeping with series tradition, Spikes Back features two buffoonish male villains, here posing as emergency plumbers. This time, however, they’re not after Buddy but an enormous diamond.

00:06:37 – One possible explanation for the subtle narrative variation throughout the Air Bud franchise is that the clown put Buddy in a coma at the start of the first movie, and everything that happens subsequently is merely a projection of an elaborate dream loop. That, or it’s just lazy screenwriting.

00:12:28 – Andrea (Katija Pevec) bids a teary farewell to Tammy (Chantal Strand), who is relocating to San Diego with her family.

00:13:45 – The Fernfield Summer Fair is in full swing. Josh’s kid brother, Noah (Jake Smith), leads Buddy out to rapturous applause for the annual canine obstacle course competition.

00:14:29 – Familiarity is starting to breed contempt.

00:16:08 – The slack-jawed crooks figure that Buddy’s unique skill set makes him the ideal jewel heist accomplice.

00:18:45 – Patrick (Alfred E Humphreys) now appears to be ageing backwards.

00:21:50 – Andrea meets her new next door neighbour, Connor (Tyler Boissonnault), who happens to be a keen volleyball enthusiast.

00:26:20 – The film introduces us to Buddy’s talking parrot sidekick, Polly (voiced by Brian Dobson).

00:29:50 – Buddy eats Noah’s ice cream. Noah is understandably aggrieved.

00:35:32 – Connor teaches Buddy how to play volleyball. Buddy is a natural.

00:38:09 – Straying from the hitherto winning Golden Retriever-based formula, the film features a broad variety of dog breeds.

00:38:30 – Buddy gets his head stuck in a vase.

00:40:12 – Is Buddy an alien?

00:45:47 – Nicholas Harrison, who played the umpire in Seventh Inning Fetch, returns as the Fernfield High beach volleyball coach. His previous performance did not warrant this.

00:49:12 – The Timberwolves narrowly lose to two-time state champions the Riverside Rats. The match is poorly attended.

00:55:31 – Buddy fills in as the Timberwolves replacement setter. Coach McKay shrewdly observes that he is not an Irish Setter.

01:02:43 – Mysteriously, there appear to be no cats in Fernfield.

01:05:55 – Buddy is kidnapped while Noah is busy buying yet more ice cream.

01:10:48 – Buddy steals the diamond. In their haste, one of the bad guys triggers the alarm.

01:12:43 – Buddy makes a break for it. While in pursuit, one of the crooks snatches a small child’s micro scooter.

01:13:11 – Buddy manages to outmanoeuvre the perps at the now abandoned Fernfield Summer Fair. He ensures they are apprehended and formally detained before hightailing it to the beach.

01:17:12 – A vintage display from Buddy leads the Timberwolves to an emphatic victory over the Riverside Rats. The team celebrates by jumping off a nearby jetty. Buddy looks on apprehensively.

01:19:39 – Buddy is my Colonel Kurtz.

01:20:46 – Andrea and Tammy reunite in Malibu, where Buddy scores the winning point in a professional women’s volleyball game.

01:23:26 – It’s… over. Sweet Marley’s ghost it’s over! Cujo, Digby, Hooch, Toto, Uggie, Old Yeller, your boys took a hell of a beating!

01:26:40 – In spite of obvious budget cuts and a complete absence of nuance, Spikes Back is something of a return to form for the Air Bud series. That said, it’s not a patch on the original, though in all honesty everything beyond that blurred into a seemingly endless aversion therapy session.

Final Ranking

1. Air Bud
2. Air Bud: Golden Receiver
3. Air Bud: Spikes Back
4. Air Bud: World Pup
5. Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch

Next week, Wishbone revisited…

Published 22 Aug 2017

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