It started with "Air Bud," a warm-hearted film about a golden retriever that helps a boy get over his loneliness. But that film about a dog that could play basketball led to a flurry of similar movies about golden retrievers that could excel at football, volleyball, soccer--even baseball. And when it seemed as if the filmmakers were going to have to resort to less familiar sports like bass fishing tournaments or curling, they did what all filmmakers do when they have a successful "brand" that's starting to lag.
Like the makers of Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, and the Disney cartoon characters, they trotted out the same product, but featuring baby versions of the popular characters--in this case, puppies. There's the meditation-oriented Buddha (Field Cate), who ends up in a Zen household; Budderball (Josh Flitter), a glutton who finds the perfect home with rich people; B-Dawg (Skyler Gisondo), a rap-dog with a skate-punk owner; Mudbud (Henry Hodges) who found a family that didn't care he loved to wallow; and Rosebud (Liliana Mumy), the all-girl dog with an all-girl owner.
The talking puppies were launched in 2006 with "Air Buddies," and enough dog-lovers took to the cute-and-cuddly golden retrievers to make the Disney folks go to the pound again and again. "Snow Buddies" followed in 2008, and "Space Buddies came out earlier this year. None of these films were any good, really, even considering the target audience, but at least "Space Buddies" had a solid narrative through-line and plenty of owner-animal emotion that pet owners could identify with. I gave that one a 6 out of 10 because it was still entertaining. But "Santa Buddies: The Legend of Santa Paws"? Given the Christmas theme and the way that this film misfires, it would be tempting to call it a lump of coal. But that implies we viewers have done something to deserve it. More than a lump of coal, I think you'd have to call it doggie do-do. And we don't deserve that, either.
"Santa Buddies" is without a doubt the worst Buddies movie and one of the more tedious holiday films I've had to sit through. The insipid concept, the illogical narrative arc, cardboard characters, and just plain bad dialogue make this film something to avoid . . . like those droppings you might see as you're walking down the street.
And am I just being a Grinch-like movie critic? Perhaps. But then so is my eight-year-old daughter, who liked "Space Buddies" but was as bored by this one as I was offended by it. Then again, I think it's probably an insult to children's intelligence too, unless we're talking about toddlers. Writer Robert Vince, who penned all of the little Buddies movies, may have been aiming for the North Pole, but his script goes south in a hurry. With a film like this you have to get the audience to suspend belief in a logical world, but Vince simply asks too much of us. First he expects us to buy some garbled fantasy nonsense about there being a Christmas icicle that's melting not because of global warming, but because people just don't have the Christmas spirit. When it's gone, so is Christmas . . . FOREVER! Now, we may have bought into a concept like that in "Elf," when Santa's sleigh is powered by belief in Santa Claus, because hey, a sleigh's gotta fly somehow, and the idea of an immeasurable force like belief somehow powering it seemed to make about as much sense as any miracle. But when you attach belief to something so tangible as a big icicle, then throw the "gone forever" exaggeration into the mix, it's harder to buy into.
That's not the worst of it. In this disappointing film there are two Santas who sit in big red-velvet thrones at the North Pole: Santa Claus, and Santa Paws. One keeps a naughty-and-nice list for humans, and the other for canines. As for cats and cat owners, apparently you don't have Christmas. But Santa Paws? It's a concept so lame that it can't help but force the poor pooch to limp through the rest of the film on bad dialogue. Still, it gets worse. Santa Paws appears to be Santa's dog at first, then a parallel Santa with equal standing, and finally, when the offspring of Santa Paws, Puppy Paws, goes off on an adventure with Santa's top elf, we're told that Puppy Paws is the elf's boss, which implies that Santa Paws is over Santa Claus. Say ruff?
Oh, Vince tries to be clever and have the villain in the film, a dogcatcher, named Cruge instead of Scrooge, and the little mongrel that gets placed in a home is named Tiny (as in "God bless us everyone!" Tim). But there's nothing here that's as charming or emotionally moving as intended. It's all too shallow and garbled for any of it to make sense or for us to care about any of the characters. We have zero emotional investment in these characters--even the human variations on Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit--because they're not on-camera enough for us to care about them. Missing this outing is that bond between pets and owners. The focus is too much on the dogs, and that's where this film goes.
The plot? It's pretty simple. As Santa (George Wendt) and Santa Paws (Tom Bosley) lament that the icicle is melting, Puppy Paws (Zachary Gordon) is sabotaging the toy operation by his mischief. It turns out that Puppy Paws doesn't believe in Christmas (What's not to believe? He's seeing it, isn't he?) and doesn't want to follow in Dad's pawprints (okay, that's more believable). So he stows away on a mail truck that Santa's head elf, Eli (Danny Woodburn) drives in order to pick up letters to Santa. Why? Because he sees that Butterball is on the naughty list for eating the family's Thanksgiving dinner, and Butterball seems like his kind of dog. Puppy Paws just wants to be a normal puppy, you see. But his leaving makes the icicle melt so quickly that the truck doesn't even have enough magic in the tank to get back to the North Pole. To help him get back, he uses a crystal that he wears around his neck and a sleigh from a fake Santa display, powered by the Buddies. Thrown into the mix is that dogcatcher, who catches Puppy Paws and various others, and a running gag of a deputy (Michael Teigen) trying to get the town Christmas tree to light up, while his bloodhound, Sniffer (Tim Conway), adds laconic relief.
I don't want to be all negative, because the dogs are cute to watch, the costume and set design is colorfully appropriate, and the special effects aren't bad. But the shaky concept and shakier writing do too much damage. It's also like boarding an ark instead of a sleigh, because everything comes in twos. We get a speech from Puppy Paws about how Tiny (Kaitlyn Maher) helped teach him the true meaning of Christmas TWO times. Twice Puppy Paws and the Buddies are told that they "saved Christmas" in two separate episodes. And there are two endings, when (pick one) either would have sufficed. And the Christmas message is beaten into you so many times that you start to feel like a puppy being trained with a rolled-up newspaper. It's no wonder the performances are uninspired. George Wendt couldn't have felt much different than if he'd donned a Santa suit for a department store.
Depending on how you feel about talking dogs, you're either going to think that one of eight songs that's sung by little Tiny about the Christmas spirit is inspirational, or doggone silly. But perhaps the most unfortunate thing about "Santa Buddies" is that there's already a sequel in production: "The Search for Santa Paws," which is scheduled for release next holiday season. God help us, everyone.
Like "Space Buddies," "Santa Buddies" does look visually wonderful, however, especially in 1080p. Presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, "Santa Buddies" offers rich colors and sharp detail at every turn. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is complaint-free, as are black levels and color saturation. In this respect, it's a stronger image than we got in "Space Buddies."
The audio is also strong. Disney went with an English DTS-HD 5.1 MA (48kHz/24-bit) that delivers clear-as-a-bell dialogue and effects, with a dynamics that place this not near the top of the scale but certainly well above average. Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Not much here. The Blu-ray and DVD both feature a Christmas carol sing-along and a "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" music video.
Toddlers may enjoy "Santa Buddies," but older children and adults will find this holiday mish-mash tough to take. Even pet owners and dog-lovers. But if you hit your mute button, you might just enjoy looking at the antics of these well-trained dogs and appreciate the full-throttle holiday set design.