Once upon a time Air Bud (known by his friends as “Buddy”) was merely a simple golden retriever with an inordinate talent for playing basketball. Not to be pigeonholed, Buddy gradually proved himself to be more of a canine Bo Jackson than just a run-of-the-mill basketball-playing dog, and found formidable careers in football, soccer, baseball, and volleyball. Even more impressive, Buddy found a way to extend his career beyond the playing field, a struggle that a lot of athletes fail to overcome, and has established a second life as a big-time movie executive. At first, Buddy made his film production choices based solely on nepotism, and released six vanity projects starring his own puppies, in what has been labeled as the Air Buddies series. Now, after seven years of straight-to-DVD movies that featured his offspring venturing into unlikely territory like space travel & supernatural crime fighting, Air Bud has finally gotten back to his roots: sports movies. Branching off from his work with Disney and rebranding his film productions as Air Bud Entertainment, Buddy has finally released his first film that does not feature his own progeny: a pro wrestling comedy called Russell Madness. As evidenced by the film’s prominence on the Air Bud entertainment website & this picture of Buddy working hard as a big time movie executive, he could not be prouder of the results.
As the title indicates, Russell Madness strays from Air Bud Entertainment’s usual preference for golden retriever protagonists by casting a Jack Russell terrier in the titular role of a rescued pound dog who finds fame & fortune in an unexpected pro wrestling career. As the title does not indicate, but as you can see in the film’s trailer, the character’s wrestling name is actually “Russell Mania”, not “Russell Madness”. The phrase “Russell Mania” is repeated constantly throughout the film, echoed even in Russell’s killer entrance music (a vital asset to any pro wrestler), but the phrase “Russell Madness” isn’t uttered even once. Why the name change, you ask? As a shrewd business dog, Air Bud was obviously side-stepping any potential legal conflicts with references to the WWE’s WrestleMania brand, dog-based puns or not. That doesn’t mean that WWE got the last laugh here. Oh, no. Air Bud Entertainment not only kept all of the verbal “Russell Mania” references in its debut feature, but also found more subversive ways to criticize the “sports entertainment” giant that robbed them of their movie’s intended title.
Although Russell Madness does not refer to the WWE directly, again thanks to Buddy’s shrewd business sense, its main conflict is built around a WWE surrogate. In the movie’s folklore, all local & regional wrestling promotions were eaten up by an amoral juggernaut that built its empire by violating long-respected business treaties of non-competition. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly how the WWE rose to prominence in the early 80s. Russell Madness even named its fake wrestling promotion the Wrestlers United Federation, or WUF. This not only serves as a reference to WWE’s past as the WWF, but also finds room for another stellar dog pun (“woof”, for those following along), of which there are plenty. Now that’s efficiency! Just in case that wasn’t enough to drive the point home, a Vince McMahon stand-in, Mick Vaugn (played by Cliff from Cheers), is the evil capitalist head of WUF & makes constant references to his business as more “entertainment” than wrestling. He even goes so far as to ruin the illusion of the “sport”’ by suggesting that (gasp!) the results are fixed and the performers are (double gasp!) only in it for the money.
This little slice of pro wrestling history (with a talking, wrasslin’ dog added for flavor) may seem like familiar territory for even the least committed of marks, but to a child it sounds like ancient history. When the father figure of Russell’s adoptive family recaps the WUF takeover of his own father’s business as a bedtime story, he starts, “Back in his heyday, in a time called ‘The 80s’ . . . “ and instead of imagining the world thirty years ago, his kid (played by one of Mad Men‘s many Bobby Drapers) imagines a sort of dust-covered vaudevillian aesthetic that places the events about a century back. Indeed, even the Ferraro Family Wrestling (an Italian slant on the Guerreros?) arena looks like an ancient vaudevillian theater (that’s in incredible shape for a supposedly blighted building) or as the dad puts it, “midcentury guido”. There’s no denying that this one classy joint, especially once Russell’s family cleans it up & revives the old Ferraro family business. Once again, the comparison between the charming, warmhearted wrestling indies and the cold, mammoth WUF is made clear in how much more character the old-timey digs have than the blue-lit corporate arenas.
At this point it’d be fair for you to have a few lingering questions like, sure the arena is swell, but what about the wrasslin’? And how does a dog even wrestle in the first place? And we know about Russell’s entrance music, but what’s his signature move? First of all, Russell can wrestle. Oh boy can he wrestle. He’s a good boy, yes sir. Who’s a good boy? Russell is. That’s right. As a Jack Russell terrier, Russell obviously isn’t going to be dishing out any suplexes or pile-drivers, but he gets by on some surprisingly adept (CGI-assisted) choke holds and rope work. He may not have the height, strength, charisma, body mass, opposable thumbs, or lung capacity normally associated with pro wrestling’s top acts, but Russell uses his light frame’s aerial abilities to their full advantage and he’s got three very important things than many a wrestling legend have made careers out of in the past: novelty, heart, and raw talent. Of course novelty, heart, and raw talent alone won’t make a champion, but Russell finds a great manager in a (talking!) monkey (voiced by Will Sasso!) who has been haunting the Ferraro Family Wrestling arena since it shut down in the 80s, just waiting for a young talent to shape into a wrestling god. With his monkey manager’s help Russell proves himself champion in a sea of lesser opponents that include a mummy, a cave man, a pirate, a clown, an escaped convict, and a California surfer who says things like “Dude, that’s gnarly.” He even has a unique finisher: he pisses on the competition. It’s not a very physically taxing move, but it is wickedly brutal in its own demoralizing way.
If watching a (talking!) Jack Russell terrier fight his way to the top of the pro wrestling world with the help of his (talking!) monkey manager and a family who loves him sounds like a hokey mess to you, please keep in mind that Air Bud Entertainment is primarily made for children. Russell Madness is just one of the many hokey messes of children’s media, but it’s one with fairly deep love & understanding for both the art of pro wrestling & the art of the pun. Comedy workhorse Fred Willard resurrects his clueless sports announcer role from Best in Show here to deliver some of the best puns of the film, including a personal favorite of mine that involves chimney sweeps. That doesn’t mean he gets to have all the fun, though. Russell even gets a good one in himself when he tells the film’s central heel “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Of course, there’s some occasionally tedious humor to the movie that will cause many-a-eye roll (Will Sasso’s literal monkeyshines certainly push it), but that’s to be expected in a straight-to-VOD kid’s movie that was greenlit & produced by a retired-athlete golden retriever. What’s more surprising is how much of Russell Madness strangely works. There’s a particular shot of the child protagonist (Bobby Draper IV) enjoying his birthday cake with a life-size cutout of his absent father that has a particularly strong pathos to it. Also, as silly as the idea of a wrestling dog might be to some people, it works surprisingly well at garnering heat for his opponents. What heel behavior could possibly trump beating up a dog for money?
If you can get past the cheap CGI weirdness, the awful little moving mouths on the talking animals (à la The Voices), and the idea that people would somehow be more impressed by a wrestling dog than a talking monkey with managerial skills, you might find yourself enjoying this little wrestling cinema oddity. Personally, I marked out to the point where I was totally on board with even its most ham-fisted messages like “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” and “The strongest tag team is family.” Film producer “Air Bud” Buddy may not have touched every heart with his tale of a dog who takes the pro wrestling world by storm and finds a family to call his own (or even got the film title he wanted), but he at least touched my heart. I’m actually not entirely convinced that Russell Madness wasn’t made specifically with me in mind & it’s highly likely that it will remain my favorite “bad” movie of 2015. Once again, Buddy took it to the hoop.