What is more emblematic of the United States’ corporate capitalist narrative than Air Bud? A well-groomed, intelligent Golden Retriever frees himself from an abusive owner to provide both athletic success and companionship to a fatherless boy. Yet, as Air Bud nears its 20th anniversary in a year and change, it is imperative to reconsider this touchstone family film. Is Air Bud a story of basketball glory and family cohesion, of friendship between human and other animal, or is it truly a parable of an oppressive corporate system cloaking the workers’ alientation in false empathy?
Buddy, the film’s protagonist, represents the indoctrinated masses. Yet, Buddy is ensnared in a better-disguised trap than he could ever imagine. Buddy is, importantly, cognizant of workplace abuses and exploitation. At Air Bud’s opening, Buddy (then, Old Blue) rebels against his boss — party clown Norm Snively — by engaging in refusal of work and destruction of the means of production. In fact, Old Blue’s open defiance of workplace ritual opens the movie on an optimistic note. Old Blue rebels against the trainer-dog hierarchy, and is in turn rewarded with brief respite from the capitalist system. It is at this point, however, that a vigilant Marxist must note the film’s sinister neoliberal turn.
Viewers soon meet the film’s supposed second protagonist: Josh Framm, a seemingly kindhearted loner who is too fearful to exert himself in the purportedly meritocratic middle school basketball tryouts. Josh discovers Old Blue’s innate ability to shoot hoops, the control, litigation and exploitation of which drives the film’s drama.
Josh, in truth, represents modern corporations that expertly disguise their profit-hunger with professions of compassion for their workers and promises that, thanks to the commodity, their consumer can be placed into a position to better the world … through consumption, of course. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek deftly expounds the intricacies of such a deception in his 2009 book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Considering Starbucks’ emphasis on Fair Trade and Ethos water product, among other such products and campaigns, Žižek writes, “what you are really buying is the ‘coffee ethic,’ which includes care for the environment, social responsibility towards the producers,” later noting that such as an ethic is a calling card of corporation’s strategy of “sell[ing] their products with a progressive spin.” Josh’s presentation of Buddy’s labor as a justified catalyst to his athletic success is marred by the exact same farces. Perhaps we should say that Josh conceals his desire to exploit Buddy’s talent for athletic gain through a parallel “puppy ethic.”
During their first interaction, Josh gives his new canine associate not only a new name, but also one that defines him solely in relation to Josh. No longer is he Old Blue, but now Buddy. Thus, Buddy is henceforth known only as a buddy to man, assumed to be loyal to his bourgeois overseers. Dan Lyons discusses this emphasis on renaming and mythology in Disrupted, his polemic against capitalist start-up culture. “[Y]ou give [the workers] a mission,” Lyons writes, “You tell your employees how special they are and how lucky they are to be here.” So it is with Josh’s management of Old Blue/Buddy.
The film constantly reasserts that Buddy’s current situation, one in which his owner still exploit him for his talent, is certainly better than his previous situation. ‘Yes,’ the film insinuates, ‘we recognize past iterations of capitalism’s ills, but this is modern capitalism, this is capitalism that fulfills both the bourgeois (Josh) and the proletarian (Buddy).”
Instances of Buddy’s owners blatantly alienating him from his labor appear throughout the film. Consider one of Air Bud’s most harrowing scenes. After prolonged threats to separate Josh and Buddy, Josh’s mother Jackie pointedly “gifts” Buddy to Josh on Christmas Day, an act that she considers to be benevolent. In an analysis where Jackie, not Josh, represents the capitalist, this act parallels the pseudo-philanthropic actions that corporations commit to construct a farce of empathy and humanity. We must again invoke Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: “Corporations such as Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favor among liberals even though they both engage in anti-union activities.” Similarly, Jackie is construed as a benevolent character merely because she abstains from dispassionately severing a compassionate relationship between two subjects who are subjugated beneath her in an age- and species-based hierarchy.
Furthermore, with the aftershocks of the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis still reverberating, Josh’s basketball coach Arthur Chaney’s sly insertion of Buddy is shocking and painful. Buddy’s ability to carry the Timberwolves to victory results from Chaney’s decision to exploit the absence of an implicit and important rule that maintained an equal playing field (well, court): the expectation that all players be of the same species. The willingness to exploit a loophole to assure personal success in the face of direct detriment to competitors and fellow citizens lends itself to direct comparison to the shadow banking industry that enriched financial insiders while harming millions of Americans.
Still, cynical readers might point to the pivotal scene in which Buddy runs across the courthouse lawn to elect to live with the Framms as proof of Buddy’s desire to continue playing basketball for Josh. (For context: Snively successfully claims private property rights to Buddy, at which point Josh steals him back, leading to a lawsuit regarding Snively’s seemingly rightful ownership. Presiding Judge Cranfield decides to set the Framms and Snively on opposite ends of the courthouse lawn, allowing Buddy to run to and thus select his rightful owner.) Buddy has chosen to remain in the system — he is not being exploited, he is being fulfilled! Yet, barriers exist that render Buddy’s choice far from completely free.
As a proletarian, Buddy does not have free access to the means of production. He is denied usage of basketballs and courts without possessing private property. Buddy must either gain the ability to accrue wealth (an opportunity denied to him by both Snively and the Framms) or must labor for Josh and the Timberwolves, tying his fulfillment to bourgeois enrichment. Furthermore, the prior options do not consider the possibility that Buddy feels no psychological or spiritual fulfillment through playing basketball, but has rather been indoctrinated to see it as his only way to attain societal value. Buddy has not been awakened to the vast rebellious potential of refusal of work. Buddy, as a sentient being, is valuable due first and foremost to his own consciousness, his own existence. Additionally, there are even more problematic capitalistic assumptions embedded in the courthouse lawn scene.
Such a scene in fact acts out a recurrent motif in ’90s-era children’s movies: the triumph of the innocent love between child and animal over cruel authority. Except, I hereafter argue, such a narrative carries implicit statements about the necessary dominance of law in daily life in a capitalist society. Much like Jackie’s performatively benevolent act of allowing Buddy and Josh to remain together, Judge Cranfield’s decision merely serves to recast an oppressive judicial system in a humane light. Following Judge Cranfield’s decision, Buddy runs to Josh, the two are legally united and the film ends with the police now turning on Snively. The second that Snively loses the potential to be viewed as an owner of ever-important private property, he is immediately prosecuted by authority.
Furthermore, the court lawn scene asserts that love is not transcendent. Buddy and Josh are not reunited because their love overruns the power of and refutes the authority of legal structure, but are instead reunited with the permission of the legal system. Thus, the film instructs the viewer: ‘you see, court management and police protection of private property rights are good. When the police enforce private property rights, young boys and beloved dogs end up together.’ But such a message implies a dark alternative. What if Buddy had instead run to Snively?
If we accept Judge Cranfield’s authority to transfer private property rights to Josh Framm, we must also accept the possibility that an alternative action would lead to Buddy’s reversion to Old Blue, saddened clown dog. Air Bud not only celebrates Josh and Buddy’s love, it applauds the legal system’s ability to preside over the domain of love and compassion.
I dream of an alternative ending in which Josh, upon liberating Buddy, introduces him to a commune of other enlightened dogs who work for the realization of their own goals and the betterment of their shared, canine society. Buddies of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your leashes!
Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.