Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Compared to some of their more crass kids’ movie counterparts, the Air Bud movies are relatively digestible. They’re not trying to sell anything—save for their own interminable sequels and spin-offs, which have now grown to include the Air Buddies series, the Santa Paws series, the Pup Star series, the MVP: Most Valuable Primate series, and a smattering of ape- and/or dog-related movies unrelated to the rest of the Air Bud franchise. (We’re sticking with the original five for our purposes.) They encourage kids to go outside and play sports, which is nice, if shame-inducing if one happens to be a full-grown adult sitting inside and watching these movies in air-conditioned comfort all day. And animals doing people things, as five minutes on YouTube will prove abundantly and repeatedly, is never not adorable. Even if the dog can be a real pain in the ass.

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Not the real Buddy The Wonder Dog, of course, the canine actor around whom the original film was based. He was a good boy. Buddy’s origin story was not entirely dissimilar to his onscreen counterpart’s; his owner, Kevin DiCicco, found him wandering in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1989, took him home, and trained him to bounce a basketball off of his nose and into a basketball hoop, a trick that sounds like it was born out of the need to stop the big goof from eating basketballs as much as anything else. “When I would shoot a basket, he would bite at it and his canines would punch it out of his teeth,” DiCicco told The Springfield News-Sun in 2012.

That trick got DiCicco and Buddy a spot on America’s Funniest Home Videos, multiple bookings on David Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks,” and an episode of Full House where Buddy served as stunt dog for a scene where Comet makes Uncle Jesse look like a real dumbass on the basketball court. Then, in 1991, DiCicco brought the idea for a movie starring his talented dog to producer Robert Vince, whom DiCicco would threaten to sue after Air Bud finally made it to theaters six years later.

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You see, Buddy the dog was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma and had his right hind leg amputated shortly after Air Bud wrapped, leading distributor Disney to issue a reassuring announcement saying Buddy could still shoot baskets on three legs so as not to worry the kiddies. But there was no way to spin the news that Buddy died at the age of 10 in 1998, shortly before the release of Air Bud: Golden Receiver. (If you think that’s depressing, just wait until you hear about the five puppies that died on the set of Snow Buddies in 2008.) Buddy’s amputation left him unable to appear in Golden Receiver, and so Vince went ahead and shot the sequel without him—and without DiCicco, who claimed he never got the 10 percent of the film’s profits Vince had promised him back in 1991. “I was proud to be able to give them a film to get them on the map,” DiCicco told EW at the time, “and then they turn around and piss on me.” But Vince and his Keystone Entertainment owned the name “Air Bud,” and so DiCicco was out of luck.

He still had plenty of dog sperm, though. Wisely sensing that stumbling upon a stray dog with a drive to dominate the paint was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing, DiCicco had Buddy’s sperm frozen in 1994. He began making puppies shortly thereafter, and by the time of Buddy’s death, he had nine puppies, all trained to play soccer, hockey, baseball, and football, or at least some approximation thereof. DiCicco’s planned Air Bud: Golden Receiver rival Air Bud: The Next Generation never came to pass, but he did write a biography of his famous dog, Go Buddy! The Air Bud Story, and as of 2013 was touring the country performing tricks with Buddy’s now-grown sons. Karma would eventually come for Vince in the form of bad reviews and direct-to-video purgatory, but that wasn’t enough to deter him from his post as CEO of Air Bud Entertainment, where he remains to this day.

Okay, now that we’re all nice and bummed out, let’s talk about the abusive clown. Not only does young Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers), the initial protagonist of the Air Bud series, rescue his majestic and exceptionally well-trained dog, Buddy, from an abusive owner in Air Bud (1997), he saves him from an abusive clown. It’s pretty obvious that the clown is supposed to be an an alcoholic, but this is a kids’ movie so, save for some beer-can set dressing, that has to remain in the realm of subtext. Instead, he’s just dirty, yells “darn,” and drives a shitty pickup truck with exhaust billowing out of its tailpipe, leaving poor Buddy to careen wildly around the bed of his truck in his dog carrier. Naturally, Buddy soon falls out of the truck and goes tumbling into the road, where Josh’s mom, Jackie (Wendy Makkena), comes breathtakingly close to hitting him with her car and just drives away, leaving Buddy standing there by the side of the road in his clown outfit looking all cute and sad.

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To be fair, Jackie’s got other things on her mind. Her husband recently died—a bit of exposition that’s revealed in the form of a newspaper article about his dad’s fiery death in a plane crash Josh keeps framed by his bed—and she’s moving to the small town of Fernfield, Washington with her two young children, trying to start over. Jackie is so distracted, in fact, that she doesn’t realize that Josh, her eldest, wants to try out for the basketball team, even though he carries a basketball with him everywhere he goes. Josh also sucks at basketball, which is a complicating factor. And so he finds himself hanging out on the overgrown basketball court behind an abandoned church every afternoon after school, where he lures Buddy out of the bushes with some vanilla pudding cups (a visual motif in the series). A can of paint, some fog, and a few stirring soundtrack cues later, and the two are making magic by learning how to not suck at basketball together.

The problem at this point is that Buddy is a Rube Goldberg device of an animal. Everywhere he goes, elaborately choreographed slapstick pratfalls follow, causing unholy messes that make Jackie understandably hesitant to bring this agent of canine chaos into her home. Buddy’s disregard for authority works out better for him at Josh’s school, where he barges onto the basketball court in the middle of a game and gets the school’s (implied) racist, abusive coach fired. Luckily former NBA player and textbook magical black man Arthur (Bill Cobbs) works as a janitor at the school, and is willing to take over for the ousted coach. Arthur is the one who introduces the idea of having Buddy join the team, leading the ref to utter the immortal line, “Ain’t no rule says a dog can’t play basketball.” There is, actually, but whatever. He’s got little sneakers on!

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Anyway, fast forward a couple of montages and Josh is abandoning Buddy on a remote island, Harry And The Hendersons-style, on the day of the state basketball finals. He’s trying to save Buddy from the alcoholic clown, who’s returned to claim his property after seeing Buddy play basketball on the local news. But, as has been previously established, Buddy does whatever the fuck he wants, and so returns just in time to win the big game like Christian Grey after his helicopter crashes in the wilderness in Fifty Shades Darker. No explanation, no nothing. He just runs into the gym, his goofy tongue flapping in the breeze. You think the film’s going to end with Josh and Buddy winning the big game, but no—there’s a courtroom coda where Arthur once again saves the day by arguing that Buddy is an adult in people years, and thus should be able to choose who he wants to live with. It would never hold up in an actual court, but having a dog on the junior high basketball team is pretty unprecedented, too.

It’s not as terrible of an idea as letting a dog play full-contact football, though, which is the premise of the sequel, Air Bud: Golden Receiver (1998). Although it was released only a year after the first movie—and was the last in the series to receive a theatrical release outside of the Philippines—Golden Retriever moves forward in dog years, picking up as former pathetic twerp Josh enters his last year of junior high as a basketball star. If Air Bud was about a young boy learning to live again after profound loss through the medium of a basketball-playing dog, then Golden Receiver is about that same boy finally getting closure for his father’s death and allowing a new father figure in his life through the medium of a football-playing dog. Oh, and funny cartoon villains with giant nets.

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The clown is gone, having been hauled off to jail for reasons unknown at the end of the last film. He’s been replaced with the Rocky And Bullwinkle-esque Natalya (SNL’s Nora Dunn), a Russian circus owner collecting animal attractions to ship back to the motherland. Natalya and her sidekick Popov (Perry Anzilotti) seem to exist in a different movie than everyone else, a broader, more comedic one full of animal hijinks like chimps watching TV and mules spraying diarrhea in people’s faces. The fact that their storyline has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the plot except to remove Buddy from the action long enough to return to win the big game at the end contributes to that illusion. That, and their filthy ice-cream truck, a terrible vehicle in which to go creeping around stealing athletic dogs for your post-Soviet circus.

As if Nora Dunn’s dignity hadn’t suffered enough, Natalya and Popov are absent for long stretches of the film as Josh wrangles with a more pressing threat: an impending stepdad. His mom, Jackie (Cynthia Stevenson, who would remain in the role for the rest of the series), has decided she’s ready to date again, and even Buddy’s trickster, god-like ability to spread chaos can only go so far in squashing the budding romance between Jackie and the town veterinarian, Dr. Patrick Sullivan (Gregory Harrison, for now). Much as Air Bud glossed over alcoholism and abuse, Golden Receiver euphemizes romantic affection into grown-ups beeping each other’s noses and playfully lifting each other off of the ground. It’s more than enough to freak Josh out, though, and he runs away from home only to be collected at the bus station by his Italian stereotype of a football coach, who explains to him that if he can love both basketball and football, he can love his dead dad and his stepdad, too.

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Coach Fanelli (Robert Costanzo) gets in some of the best lines in this installment, including the titular declaration, “I tell you one thing, boys, that ain’t no golden retriever. That there’s a golden receiver.” (Check out the trailer below.) The means by which Buddy joins a different branch of the athletics department at Josh’s school is always the same and always predicated by illness or injury, so much so you begin to wonder if he’s wandering the streets at night with a crowbar in his mouth like a furry little Tonya Harding. Team is in trouble, someone gets hurt, Buddy takes their place, team is good all of a sudden, team makes state finals, Buddy gets kidnapped but returns just in time to play in the big game. Switch sports and repeat. The acceptance of Buddy’s presence on the team—although not the wonderment at what is essentially an elaborate game of catch—also gets easier every installment; in Golden Receiver, it’s settled with this simple exchange: “Dogs don’t play football.” “Well, they don’t play basketball either, do they?” Iron-clad logic, that.

One thing that does change is the child actors, especially Kevin Zegers, who plays Josh for four films running and who we watch grow up over the course of the series. By the time we get to the third, and arguably worst, film in the series, Air Bud: World Pup (2000), Josh is in high school and old enough to be interested in girls. In fact, everybody gets lucky in this one, especially Buddy, who’s having puppies with fellow golden retriever Molly by the halfway point of the film. Conveniently enough, Molly belongs to Josh’s love interest Emma Putter (Brittany Paige Bouck), a sunny blond soccer player with an abominable British accent who lives in a mansion apparently just down the road from the Framm family’s middle-class suburban home. Emma’s embarrassing attempt at Britishness is rivaled only by Duncan Regehr, who plays her bespectacled, perpetually flustered dad, Geoffrey; there’s no real reason for the family to be English, except for a “Football? I thought we were playing soccer!” joke and the fact that Harry Potter was big among the film’s target audience at the time.

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Speaking of, now that Josh has aged out of the series’ pre-tween demographic, Josh’s little sister Andrea (Caitlin Wachs) comes into her own as a character in World Pup, setting the series on its ultimate feminist-ish course. (For what it’s worth, absent all other metrics of cinematic quality, the last three Air Bud movies all pass the Bechdel test.) Presumably because Buddy can’t play for an all-girls team—except for the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which he leads to a World Cup victory—both World Pup and its successor, Seventh Inning Fetch, double as lessons about gender integration in sports as Emma, and later Andrea and her best friend, Tammy, become stars on traditionally male athletic teams. (Josh gets more flack about joining the otherwise all-male soccer team than Emma does, with one boy shoving him and telling him, “There’s no room here for basketball players,” with a contemptuous sneer.) They inevitably take a backseat to a male dog, though, when Buddy steps in to replace one of their teammates and lead the team to glory. That muddies the issue.

The metaphor is laid on especially thick in this one, embodied in the character of an embittered coach from a rival team who takes one look at the multi-gender, multi-species lineup and exclaims, “Girls! Dogs! What’s next, a water buffalo?” He vows to get the authorities involved, and temporarily gets our heroes’ team suspended from the league on the grounds that dogs can’t play soccer. He’s shamed into withdrawing his claim by his son, though, in the following exchange:

“You kicked that team off because they had a dog?”

“You have to play by the rules, son.”

“You really don’t think we can win on our own, do you?”

Take that dialogue, replace the word “dog” with “girl,” and bam! Suddenly this is a hacky Lifetime movie about women’s sports. Once all that’s cleared up, though, no one objects to Buddy’s presence, even if the validity of his participation is dependent on whether you consider front paws hands or feet. Amid all of this incredibly muddy messaging about sportsmanship and tolerance, the bad guys’ plot to kidnap Buddy’s puppies is a mere side note. They’re there, though, and easily recognizable by their beat-up refitted delivery truck with “Dogcatcher” painted on the side.

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The villains of convenience reach their absurd peak in the also terrible but weirdly entertaining follow-up, Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (2002), in which a raccoon lures each of Buddy’s puppies, each now fully grown and clad in color-coded jerseys to represent their specialties (one plays football, one basketball, and one, um, works at a gas station) into the back of a tiny Mr. Bean-style car with a vanity plate reading “MINI-MEEEEE.” The raccoon works for two bumbling would-be mad scientists from a nearby trailer park with a get-rich-quick scheme involving genetically engineering the perfect dog from Buddy’s robust, athletic DNA. Why a raccoon? No particular reason. We are getting into the second direct-to-video installment of the series, so maybe they could no longer afford the chimp who played a similar henchman role in the second movie.

They could afford Home Improvement’s Richard Karn, though, who temporarily steps into the role of Josh and Andrea’s stepdad. A lot is changing around the Framm household: Josh is off to college, presumably on a sports scholarship; the Putters, their narrative purpose of facilitating puppies having been served, have gone back to jolly olde England or whatever; and Andrea (still Caitlin Wachs, for the moment) is experiencing some major middle-child blues as her parents fuss over their new baby. Andrea just started junior high, where things go poorly right off the bat when she forgets her backpack on the first day of school. But that just means more screen time for Buddy, who adorably crawls under her homeroom teacher’s desk to deliver her bag. (The Framm children are constantly forgetting things that Buddy then has to go fetch, one of their most relatable qualities.)

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Like her brother’s decision to join the football team, Andrea initially takes up baseball simply to get out of the house. And who can blame her? In the anarchic universe of comedic family entertainment, you could get hit by a falling paint can or peed on by a baby at any moment. Then she finds out that her BFF, Tammy (Chantal Strand), a baseball phenom who blows everyone away with her performance at tryouts, persuaded the coach to let Andrea onto the team even though Andrea, frankly, sucks at baseball.

Cue the montage set to a pretty spot-on Elvis Costello rip-off of Andrea getting her shit together with help from Buddy—who, naturally, is ready to step in the moment Tammy is injured on the field. Which makes sense when he’s playing outfield—a lot of dogs can catch baseballs—but the scene when he steps up to the plate with a bat in his mouth and hits an (offscreen) single might be the most irritatingly ludicrous sports moment of the entire series. Even Buddy going on to lead the Anaheim Angels to a World Series win at the end of the movie is more plausible, given that the Angels actually did win the World Series in 2002.

We’re running low on professional sports with significant followings at this point, but rather than move the family to Canada—which would have been fine, given that Vancouver has been standing in for Washington State this whole time—and introducing Buddy to the world of hockey, the series chose beach volleyball for the fifth and last of the “classic” Air Bud movies, Air Bud: Spikes Back (2003). Josh doesn’t appear at all in this one, which revolves around Andrea’s (Katija Pevec) attempts to raise money to go visit Tammy after she moves to the other center of the Air Bud universe, San Diego. (Whenever someone leaves Fernfield, they’re always San Diego-bound.)

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There’s very little in the way of beach volleyball in this one, and Andrea only takes up the sport in an attempt to win a free trip to California after her little brother—and not Buddy, for once—ruins her petsitting business. That’s fine, though, because the interspecies volleyball training montages, followed by the injured teammate, followed by Buddy’s addition to the roster, have all become extremely rote by this point. Even the generic surf music that plays over the volleyball scenes seems bored, compared to the pop-music mimicry of the third and fourth films, and the volleyball coach’s “Irish setter” crack pales in comparison to Coach Fanelli’s vaguely Brooklyn-accented quips in part two.

Really, the only interesting thing about Spikes Back, aside from scanning the background for amusing details like the portraits of dogs in period costume that hang in the Fernfield Art Museum (at least the art department was having fun), is the movie’s choice of generic cartoon villains. It’s a duo, of course, and they drive the shittiest van in the Fernfield metro area, because that’s how you know they’re bad guys. But puzzling over why a series of kids’ movies featuring animals and sports would write in a diamond heist subplot is a good way to pass the time, as is pondering whether Buddy, who is apparently the only dog who can facilitate such a heist and thus needs to be kidnapped before the big game once again, counts as a “chosen one” archetype à la Neo in The Matrix. If that doesn’t work, take bets on when the Mission Impossible parody will occur. (It will.)

From here, the Air Bud movies pivoted into the Air Buddies series, which abandons the sports premise altogether, because the puppies talk now and so there’s no need for it anymore. But given Air Bud Entertainment’s wanton disregard for criticism, it doesn’t make sense that they would stop making Air Bud movies simply because they fell off of the mainstream critical radar after Golden Receiver. (The first two weren’t exactly critical favorites, either, with Air Bud scoring a 43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and Golden Receiver a dismal 21 percent.)

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The idea that the series had run its creative course is similarly laughable, given that all five movies follow the same plot structure down to the pro-athlete cameo at the end. And if beach volleyball was good enough for Air Bud, why not lacrosse? Or rugby? Or ultimate frisbee? That would be perfect for a dog. Spikes Back even sets up a new generation of Framm family adventures in the character of youngest sibling Noah, who claims his birthright of vicarious sporting glory by entering Buddy in an obstacle-course race at the county fair in the last movie. (Seems kind of unfair to pit a World Cup and World Series-winning dog against amateurs, but okay.)

The Air Bud movies epitomize the concept that movies for children can be lazy in concept and lazier in execution, because kids don’t care as long as there’s something cute to look at on screen. There’s nothing offensive in them in terms of swearing or innuendo, and the violence remains solidly in the realm of slapstick. (Air Bud is rated PG, presumably for beer cans, but the rest are all rated G.) But they’re all so obnoxiously formulaic and syrupy that ranking them is a difficult task, because they all run together into one colorful blur of stupid pet tricks and stupider puns. And when you’re that shameless, why not keep making them? What we’re trying to say is: Call us, Robert Vince. We’ve got a great idea for a sixth movie where Air Bud meets a streetwise pit bull in the boxing ring.

Final ranking:

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

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