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"Air Bud" (PG, 1 hour, 38 minutes)

What a pleasant surprise to learn that this overpromoted flick about a boy and his athletically gifted golden retriever is in fact a surprisingly well-made, uncynical and entertaining tale, sure to cheer most kids 7 or 8 and up.

Director Charles Martin Smith adds tang to what might have been a gooey concoction, and filled it with charming, unforced moments, well-etched characters and a friendly message about teamwork. Then there's the irresistible, chocolate-eyed Buddy himself, whose wet-nosed basketball shots are real -- no special-effects finagling. The script contains a couple of mild swear words and a subtle implication of animal abuse (a rolled-up newspaper in someone's hand and shouting). There is also a thread of grief running through the story of 12-year-old Josh (excellent Kevin Zegers), whose test-pilot father has died in a crash.

Josh, his mom and his little sister have just moved to a new town, and "Air Bud" does a nice job showing the traumas of changing schools, complete with a mean basketball coach, team bully and kindly school custodian. Josh's sullen misery lightens when he meets Buddy, who has escaped from the clutches of an incompetent party clown (Michael Jeter).

With his basket-shooting talent, he becomes Josh's entree to the team and into a circle of friends. Of course, there are sad moments when the bad guy tries to take Buddy back, but you can reassure upset children that it'll all be OK.

Beyond the ratings game

Reliable for 6 and up:

"Hercules," G (Funny animated musical spoof of Greek myths takes literary license but gives enjoyment. Multiheaded monsters and fiery scenes in Hades' underworld may frighten littlest.)

"Good Burger," PG (Funny, good-natured buddy comedy in fast-food setting, based on popular Nickelodeon characters -- one an innocent, one a schemer. Rare crude language; mild sexual innuendo; tasteless scene spoofs psychiatric patients.)

"George of the Jungle," PG (Jungle guy hits trees, gets girl in often hilarious live-action remake of the '60s 'toon. Rare crude language; ape flatulence, elephant poop; mild sexual innuendo. Weird special-effects-created animals may scare some tots.)

"A Simple Wish," PG (Bumbling male fairy godmother helps little girl in surprisingly unemotional, unfunny kiddie comedy. Scary scene with shotgun; children's dad turned into statue by mistake, they fear they won't get him back; rare crude language.)

Better for 10 and up:

"Mrs. Brown," PG (For history buffs, a touching, funny, terrific inside-the-palace saga of Queen Victoria and her favorite blustery Scottish servant. Some drinking; one character beaten up.)

"Contact," PG (Astronomer contacts Them in sometimes exciting, more often tedious sci-fi epic. Mild profanity; unwed couple spend night together; child's father dies in frightening flashback.)

PG-13s not great for preteens:

"Operation Condor" (Jackie Chan in amusing, dreadfully dubbed secret-agent adventure. Bloodless martial arts fights; baby endangered; crude stereotyping of Arab, African characters; non-sexual semi-nudity; condom joke; scorpion, skeletons.)

"Men in Black" (G-men tussle with space aliens in nifty spoof of '50s sci-fi flicks. Weird creatures may spook younger kids. Neon-colored alien gore; squished cockroaches; crude language; mild sexual innuendo.)


"Air Force One" (Terrorists storm macho prez's plane in fantastically fun, super-patriotic thriller. Graphic, bloody gunplay; disturbing threats against child; some profanity. Too intense for some younger teens.)

"Nothing to Lose" (Profane but entertaining buddy flick with social conscience. Verbal sexual innuendo; explicit bedroom scene, semi-nudity; comic gun, fist violence; phallic sculpture joke. High schoolers.)

"Face/Off" (Terrorist, FBI agent switch personas in clever, visually stunning action epic. Bullet-in-guts close-ups; shot child shown dead; knives, harpoons, electric shock, fire; strong sexual innuendo; profanity; drugs; toilet humor. High schoolers.)

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