`Air Bud' Moves From Basketball To Football

Movie review XX "Air Bud: Golden Receiver," with Kevin Zegers, Gregory Harrison, Cynthia Stevenson, Nora Dunn, Tim Conway, Dick Martin. Directed by Richard Martin, from a script by Paul Tamasy and Aaron Mendelsohn. 91 minutes. Several theaters. "G" - General audiences.

This flat sequel to last year's minor Disney hit about a basketball-playing dog is dedicated to "the memory of the original `Buddy,' " also known as Buddy the Wonder Dog and Air Buddy.

Buddy died after "Air Bud" was released, so he's played this time by several different golden retrievers - two of which, Rush and Chase, also shared the role with Buddy the last time around.

Also back from the original cast is the busy, young Canadian actor Kevin Zegers, who once more plays Josh. In the new movie, Josh has moved with his mother (now played by Cynthia Stevenson) to a small Northwest town following the death of his father.

Unlike most sequels, this one can't simply copy the original film, in which Josh adopted Buddy after he ran away from his abusive owner. So the writers introduce a couple of inept, moderately wicked Russian circus wranglers, Natalaya (Nora Dunn) and Popov (Perry Anzilotti), who try to steal the dog, which has now become a football player on Josh's team. Even as a comic threat (and an homage to Rocky and Bullwinkle's nemeses, Boris and Natasha), they barely exist.

Also added to the formula is a tepid TV-movie story line about Josh's jealousy of his mother's new boyfriend (Gregory Harrison). Josh suspects him of philandering and there's a mild showdown. But not for a moment is there the possibility that a true crisis has occurred.

The original film's director, Charles Martin Smith, who introduced some disturbing elements (an abusive coach) and poetic moments (a "Secret Garden" hideaway for Josh and Buddy), has been replaced by Richard Martin, who brings a family-hour blandness to every scene.

Stevenson gives a performance so nonstop ingratiating that she becomes actively irritating. Harrison phones in his lines, while Robert Costanzo brings no surprises to the role of a football coach whose job is on the line. The director's father, "Laugh-In's" Dick Martin, turns up with Tim Conway, playing comic-relief sportscasters. It's not the most inspired pairing.

Fortunately, Zegers turns in a performance that is just as heartfelt as his work in the first picture, and that counts for something. You won't believe that a dog could become the prize player on a high-school football team, any more than you believed in Buddy's court maneuvers in the first picture, but Zegers makes you believe he believes.

Like the original "Air Bud," the sequel is set in Washington state (Seattle Seahawks Warren Moon and Joey Galloway appear in the final scene), though it was filmed in Canada. The first picture was a Disney/Miramax project, but this one is being released through Miramax's exploitation subdivision, Dimension Films, which usually handles things like "Halloween: H2O."