America loves to watch beloved dogs die. From Marley & Me to Where The Red Fern Grows, it seems like we just cannot stop killing man’s best friend on screen in the most heartbreaking ways imaginable. But what about those movies – and hear me out here – in which the dog doesn’t die? What about the ones in which dogs are not passive victims but heroes, winning sports championships and performing feats of great athletic prowess? The five-part cinematic saga of Buddy the canine jock is made up exclusively of those films, and they are conveniently ranked from worst dog sports film to best dog sports film below for your viewing convenience.
5. Air Bud: Spikes Back
The worst film in the Air Bud film franchise is also the most unrecognizable; virtually no actors from the original film is present, including Buddy the dog, the humor is lifeless and talking-parrot-based, and the punctuation of the title makes no sense. To top it all off, all of the volleyball stunts are accomplished with trick shots and bad special effects rather than genuine dog-based talent – an uninspired finale to an otherwise brilliant cinematic quintilogy.
4. Air Bud 4: Seventh Inning Fetch
This is the film in which Air Bud finally jumped the shark and lost all its believability, which was central to the original trilogy’s appeal. Could a dog learn how to play basketball? Probably. Football? Sure, why not? Soccer? Hell yeah, brother. But baseball is simply impossible for a dog to play capably, given that they lack the necessary dexterity of an opposable thumb as well as the upper body strength required to swing homeruns. Buddy hits the baseball by holding a bat in his mouth and rotating his head to swing when the ball approaches, but I just can’t see him hitting the ball very far with that laughably crude swinging technique. Still, it retains some of the simply joys of the original films and for that it swiftly beats out Air Bud: Spikes Back.
3. Air Bud 2: Golden Receiver
Now we are entering prime Bud territory. Air Bud 2 features the same joyful dog acrobatics of film #1 but with an even more complex sport to provide a thrilling new challenge for Buddy. I was skeptical coming into this film that Buddy would be incapable of understanding the nuances of American football – he can certainly “go long” and tackle as well as any of the boys, but does he even know what a blitz is? – but as soon as I saw him in his little jersey and helmet I knew the director had recreated the magic of the first film.
2. Air Bud
The OG Air Bud film still stands the test of time as a tour de force of animal athleticism. This is the least campy entry in the series, and despite some uncomfy racist and classist tropes – the most obvious of them being that there is a single token black character in the movie and he’s (spoiler alert) secretly a former NBA prodigy – it is for the most part a charming and joyful tale of a golden retriever beating the odds to become the greatest basketball player that Fernfield, Washington has ever seen. It’s certainly an emotional rollercoaster if nothing else, so buckle up and keep tissues readily available. Is it ultimately a vaguely problematic dog movie with a decidedly conservative take on class differences? Yes, it is. Would Buddy the dog vote for Rand Paul if given the chance? Oh, without a doubt. But, most importantly of all, is it a bona fide classic of dog cinema as well as the standard by which all modern dog movies are judged? You’d better believe it.
1. Air Bud 3: World Pup
I hear your screams: “Heresy!” you shout. “You can’t rank an Air Bud sequel over the original film! It’s just not done,” you yell at your computer screen in vain. I beg to differ, and I’m sure most people who have seen Air Bud 3: World Pup feel the same way. Smackdab in the middle of the Air Bud quintilogy, after the trial-and-error of the first two films but before the disappointing emphasis on special effects and implausible dog tricks in films four and five, right there in spot number three lies the greatest dog film ever made. So what edges this one past every other Air Bud film? It could be any number of factors, really. There’s the poignant puppy love between Buddy and the cute retriever-next-door Molly, for one – a romance which leads to the miracle of dog childbirth. There’s the absolute perfection of the premise, which involves Buddy playing soccer, the most intuitive sport a dog could play. There’s the presence of not one but two actors who played minor roles in Jurassic Park, another memorable animal movie. This is the film where all the pieces fell right into place, and the collision of campy fun, dazzling canine stunts, and well-earned charm makes it by far the most accomplished film in the Air Bud franchise.