There are a few types of movies which are produced with the Yuletide Season in mind. There are true, heartfelt holiday pictures which have become classics, such as "A Christmas Story" or those with a moral underpinning, such as "It's a Wonderful Life". There are broad comedies which use the annual festivities as a backdrop to explore the foibles of the average person, with varying degrees of success ("Jingle All the Way", "Christmas with the Cranks"). Some employ high-end CGI, namebrand actors and the Santa-related Christmas mythology to bring alive the "wonder" of Christmas ("Fred Claus", "Elf"). There are even the oddly sentimental and saccharine made-for-TV Holiday movies in which 30 and 40-somethings find romance, which hit CBS each December as regularly as fruitcake arrives by mail.
And then there are the endless stream of cheerless, mirthless, low-fi, relying-on-the-tropes-of-the-holiday, pushed through the Hollywood sausage mill, "magic of Christmas" films, almost all of which feature a long-out-of-work former-star as Santa.
"Santa Buddies" is Disney's ninth installment in the lucrative "Air Bud" franchise, which was once a simple tale of a dog who could shoot free-throws (and the boy who loved him). In this day and age, an adorable thoroughbred dog with an amazing talent is as useful to your Nintendo-DS-addled hottentots as a Smith-Corona ribbon. Lest the Hollywood studios lose a dime from haggard mothers looking for fifteen minutes of peace while their rugrats glue themselves to the screen in the back of the Caravan, Disney has gleefully kept the franchise up to date. Having jettisoned the sports-playing Bud of the first five movies, "Santa Buddies" represents the fourth installment to feature several deeply CGI-ed puppies who comment and wise-crack their way through the film and have Disney-approved stereotypes assigned to each of them, with the requisite attitude-imbued slang appropriate for each "character".
In this movie (in which, clearly, nobody is even @#$%ing trying), there's "Buddha", the openly hostile take on non-Judeo-Christian concepts of spirituality. "MudBud" is... dirty. And possibly a redneck. "Budderball" is the one who is into sports, so he's also kind of slow and really into food. "RoseBud" is the only female, and thus complexly coded as being interested in fashion and who likely believes math is hard. And, the nails-on-a-chalkboard "B-Dawg", whom you can expect your kids to parrot until Easter. Voiced by peppy child-actor Skyler Gisondo, "B-Dawg" is the hip-hop-slang toting, diamond-encrusted-medallion-wearing, embodiment of America's issues with race, culture and identity. But you shall truly feel your heart soar when B-Dawg's nose glows red and he proclaims "my nose is shining! Like my bling!".
Let it be noted: the Buddies are mostly a backdrop to a the goings-on at The North Pole where the massive frozen phallus by which Santa Claus* and Santa Paws take the measure of the level of Christmas Spirit is twinkling/ melting away. Viewers may be shocked to learn that for the purposes of our story, and reasons Santa and Santa don't get into, the world's Christmas Spirit just isn't what it used to be.
Santa Paws is, of course, Dog Santa, who delivers presents to good puppies**, and rides shotgun in Santa's sleigh. Somehow, the heir of Santa Paws, Puppy Paws (yes. Puppy Paws. It's a sort of six-degrees-of-separation thing you're better off not pondering too hard) just wants to be a "normal" puppy, and can give a toss for elves, magic, and the awkward glee that is veteran Little Person actor Danny Woodburn (of Seinfeld fame) looking like he cannot believe he's been roped into the part of Eli, the Only Competent Elf.
Anyone in this image could have had a potty accident
From a technical stand-point, the North Pole, the eight reindeer, and the Fortress of Solitude-like cave hosting the ice-phallus are all the finest CGI that could be rendered on a MacBook Pro in late 2001. Its likely writer/ director/ producer Robert Vince told himself that the unforgiveably awful graphics created a "storybook" look-and-feel, in order that he could sleep at night and still call himself a "filmmaker". Consumers buying this DVD should feel comforted that its just as likely that the intended audience of kids who think you disappear when you play "peek-a-boo" and hide behind your hands, will not notice the poor CGI. But one might (vainly) hope that a company built on animation such as Disney would have maybe tried a bit harder.
If writer/ director/ producer Vince*** does deserve a tip of the hat, its that the Buddies and Puppy Paws, all real-deal and seemingly not-dead-and-taxidermized puppies, actually sit still long enough for the necessary coverage to complete scenes. Forget all else about this movie, but watch in earnest amazement as Vince's leads do not just randomly tumble past the camera and give in to chasing their own tail.
Among the group with whom this reviewer watched the film there were, of course, theories floated, including the exclusive use of extremely tired pups, drugged pups, pups glued to some sort of mat, etc... But as this is Vince's 13th or 14th film featuring animals, one has to assume the man knows exactly what he can get out of any animal in Hollywood. And that Lassie must be sending him boudoir photos trying to get work with the man.
To get our plot shaking, for reasons that make no real sense, Puppy Paws identifies "Budderball" from Santa Paws' "Naughty List" as what a "normal" pup must be like (despite his omnipresent sports jersey and eye-black). Thus, he stows away to bum a ride in a surprisingly racist magical mail truck to the Buddies' fictional hometown of Fernfield, Washington, where he plans to join forces with "Budderball" and become "normal" as well.
The plot is fairly boiler-plate kiddie-faire, and should keep your wee-ones entertained, provided their standard for an hour's worth of amusement begins and ends with bright colors and shiny objects.
There's a non-menacing Christopher Lloyd, phoning in his performance as the curmudgeonly dog catcher just trying to make a profit. There's a semi-frightening/ cute puppy who delivers the film's chance to hit fast-forward with an original Christmas tune, and a kid who just wants a puppy, but Dad can't afford Christopher Lloyd's sky-high prices (which makes one wonder what happens when the dog needs to go to the vet, but lets not pick nits).
The movie delivers no shortage of lessons for our younger viewers, such as: run away from the new kid if he doesn't immediately fit in, people in far off lands all celebrate Christmas and live in easily stereo-typed ethnic homes, and that it isn't worth it to try to make friends with someone unless they have magical powers.
This reviewer found it somewhat striking that he became genuinely lost during a crucial point in the film in which Puppy Paws has supposedly learned a lesson about what Christmas really means. Perhaps because the lesson was delivered in a shrilly delivered song, I missed something, but it seemed unclear how "Santa Buddies" decided to define the meaning of Christmas, as no character dared to utter the lesson aloud again.
Part of the interesting mix of "Santa Buddies" is that, like most Christmas movies, the film was based almost entirely in a secular and magical world of elves, talking dogs, flying sleighs, etc... But the film also makes awkward attempts to appeal to the large audience "keeping Christ in Christmas", including scenes of characters praying, etc... This would seemingly raise the stakes for defining "the spirit of Christmas" as more than a warm fuzzy and colored lights, and there is some hint regarding charity, but its somewhat fuzzy and seemingly tied to how much you like being licked by puppies.
These puppies are stupid and I hate them
Its perhaps expecting too much for a movie about Santa's canine parallel's prodigal-son to say much about the human/ canine condition, or to ask that any message about the meaning of the Holiday be put into concrete terms, but there seemed no real transition from Puppy Paws' abandonment of his destiny and giving up and going home (ie: finding the spirit of Christmas). However, if Hollywood is intent on making Christmas film after Christmas film which insists that "people have lost the true meaning of Christmas", it would be nice to have a movie which didn't resolve the problem with fictional intangibles like "if Puppy Paws can just come back, we can deliver the presents/ save Christmas!", and perhaps do a bit more in the vein of "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life" to recognize charity and giving.
This is by no means the worst Christmas movie you may see this year. That's what ABC Family and the Hallmark Channel are here to provide. Nor is it the worst Christmas movie ever made. That distinction is currently held by the 1996 feature, "Santa with Muscles". Kids may enjoy the puppies and their non-stop stream of mistaking saying-things-that-other-people-say for humor or something anybody actually wants to hear.
Its tough to imagine a world in which an adult might watch this movie and derive non-ironic joy from the viewing, but people are into all sorts of things, I suppose. Let us just say that I have lived a life the way a man is supposed to, and never believed it possible to hate an adorable puppy.
But God help me, I hate B-Dawg.
This reviewer would suggest that, perhaps, when seeking out holiday entertainment you may wish to look elsewhere for a video which may not be the filmic equivalent of feeding your kids nothing but creme-filled doughnuts for a week.
Luckily, Robert Vince is no man to rest on his laurels. IMDB promises that a second installment in the now ever-expanding world of Air Bud/ the Buddies/ Puppy Paws will be arriving next year under the name "The Search for Santa Paws".
*It should be noted that "Cheers" alum George Wendt, who played Santa in last year's "A Colbert Christmas", in 2007's "Larry the Cable Guy's Christmas Spectacular" and in a TV movie entitled "Santa Baby" in 2006, reprises his role as Santa Claus. He, however, looks a bit pale and ghastly throughout, and several times I wondered if Mr. Claus were not fighting off a flu or suffering low blood sugar. While comforting to know Mr. Wendt and his agent have locked up "Santa" as a role for the next few years and found a role Wendt can take well into retirement, it has created an odd alternate world of entertainment where the Buddies, Stephen Colbert, and Larry the Cable Guy all share the same Santa, who is Jenny McCarthy's dad.
**I assume all cats are either Jewish or Shintoist and do not participate in the Holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus.
***A long, slow clap, then, for the career of Mr. Robert Vince. For without his talents, its' not just that we would never have had the films "Most Valuable Primate", but also "Most Vertical Primate" and the unforgettable "Most Xtreme Primate".