A lonely little boy befriends a basketball-playing Golden Retriever.
Hollywood has given leads to some talented dogs in recent years: Jim Belushi's athletic Alsatian in K-9; Tom Hanks' slobbering crime-busting partner in Turner And Hooch; the fertile Beethoven; any number of the 101 Dalmatians; the Billy Connolly-voiced Paws, who could work a computer - and now Air Bud, a basketball-playing golden retriever. It's all a far cry from the days of Lassie, who could do little more than get you to follow him to a disused mineshaft.
Josh (Zegers) is an introverted 12-year-old whose test pilot dad has been killed, necessitating a family move to the leafy Washington suburb of Fernfield. Here, he meets Buddy, a stray retriever, who can score baskets with his nose and is adopted into the family home. Buddy's ball skills soon cheer Josh up and ingratiate him with his peers, and they both make the Timberwolves school team. Conflict arrives in the form of Buddy's previous cruel owner Snively (Jeter), a children's entertainer of the Fred West school.
Laughter, tears, slapstick, sporting action and a dog in a vest - it's all good half-term fun, made easier on accompanying parents by the beautiful scenery and some assured direction from Smith. The sense of dislocation when Josh starts his new school is well-observed and recreated, and Disney cliches are mostly sidestepped, save for the inevitable cod-sermonising of team coach Bill Cobbs ("You gotta play from the heart").
The credits proudly state that no computer effects were used in the basketball scenes, and you can see why America's already had a sequel (subtitled Golden Receiver, naturally). Warning: do not tell your kids that the real Buddy died of cancer after making this film. Their tiny worlds will fall apart.
Young 'uns will care not a jot about the lack of "name" actors, for the handsome, boundless dog is the star.