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REBOUND

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C

This is the sort of movie one approaches with trepidation–a by-the-numbers family flick showcasing a star playing coach to a bunch of bumbling kids he “surprisingly” turns into unlikely winners. The plot will be excruciatingly familiar to anyone who’s seen pictures in the genre from “The Mighty Ducks” to “Kicking and Screaming,” not to mention what seem like hundreds of others in between. And yet “Rebound” turns out to be not as bad as you might expect. Sure, it’s utterly predictable. And yes, it’s completely unbelievable. It’s hardly a good movie. But it could have been a lot worse. And with this sort of movie, you learn to appreciate mediocrity when sheer awfulness seems likelier.

Martin Lawrence plays Roy McCormick, a college basketball coach who’s become less interested in his job than his endorsement deals. When he’s banned by the league after his notorious temper has an unfortunate effect on an opposing team’s mascot, his agent (Breckin Meyer) finds a loophole that will permit his reinstatement if he remains on good behavior for the rest of the season. The problem is that the only team available for him to coach is the one from his old junior high–the Mount Vernon Smelters–a ragtag bunch of losers who haven’t scored, let alone won a game, in eons. Roy’s not really interested in coaching the kids, but, wouldn’t you know it, he eventually comes around, and so do they. And along the way he not only connects with the single mom (Wendy Raquel Robinson) of his star player (Oren Williams), but–can you believe it?–finds out what’s really important in life. (Just a hint: It’s not his money, his big house, his advertising contracts or even his job. It’s…well, you know.)

It would take a book as long as the telephone directory of a major city to list the cliches in this script, attributed to no fewer than five sets of hands (three responsible for the story, and two who actually wrote it). The absurdities are even worse. All it takes to transform the team from a bunch of inept oafs to a championship squad, it appears, is a little attention; certainly we see no evidence of serious training or drills. And is there really a state championship tournament for junior high?

But what matters in a movie like this, of course, isn’t whether it’s realistic but whether it’s tolerable. And wonder of wonders, “Rebound” is. Steve Carr’s direction is at best pedestrian, but at least it’s not as unremittingly frantic as his work on “Daddy Day Care.” Lawrence, who’s often R-rated crude, tunes himself down to the point where’s he’s actually rather likable. (Why he also appears briefly in the guise of a flamboyant preacher, however, is beyond understanding. It’s a poorly staged bit, and desperately unfunny. Maybe Lawrence just insisted on showing off his supposed range.) And he’s surrounded by a group of kids who are also, rather miraculously, not obnoxious. In addition to Williams, who sort of resembles the (then L’il) Bow Wow of “Like Mike,” there’s One Love (Eddy Martin), who cares more about the appearance of his sneakers than his game; Goggles (Gus Hoffman), with the big glasses; chubby Fuzzy (Logan McElroy); tomboy Bic Mac (Tara Correa), the girl recruited as team enforcer; and Wes (Steven Christopher Parker), the tall, shambling kid who has to overcome his shyness to overawe his opponents. There’s also the chinless Ralph (Steven Anthony Lawrence), who has a proclivity that seems obligatory in movies aimed at kids nowadays–to throw up in stressful situations. But even he isn’t as irritating as some of the adults, especially Patrick Warburton as the loud-mouthed, arrogant coach who becomes McCormick’s bete noire. And the Tom Arnold-led camera whores from Fox’s “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” show up again to provide supposed commentary to the action. These guys are getting to be as depressingly frequent in that sort of role as Larry King used to be. Like most pictures aimed at the family trade, this one was obviously made on a limited budget, and it’s hardly beautiful-looking or visually stylish. But it gets by in those areas.

As familiar as it is, “Rebound” could well have been titled “Replay,” but although it’s just a formula flick, it’s not an awful one. Too bad that’s not saying much.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE, THE

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Nickelodeon’s big-screen versions of its hit kiddie shows have been a pretty sorry lot, so one might be forgiven for not expecting much from “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.” But in the event the little picture proves a happy surprise–sprightly, colorful and fun. Not having seen the series, I can’t testify to the picture’s fidelity to it, but on its own this feature provides eighty minutes that children should enjoy and adults will find more charming than not.

When the movie opens SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is opening a second Krusty Krab restaurant and our hero (Tom Kenny) fully expects to be named manager; his pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), a goofy starfish, is ready to celebrate big-time. Unfortunately Krabs promotes Bob’s neighbor Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) instead. But that’s not the worst of it: the evil Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), owner of the dumpy, unsuccessful rival eatery the Chum Bucket, aims to steal Krabs’ famous sandwich recipe by stealing the crown of arrogant King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), convincing him that Krabs is the thief, and then persuading the short-tempered monarch to do away with his rival. Fortunately sweet princess Mindy (Scarlett Johansson) persuades her father to give SpongeBob and Patrick six days to go the notorious Shell City, get back the crown and save Krabs. The mission leads to a series of episodic adventures for the duo (which vary in their humor quotient, of course), who must not only contend with the rarely-welcoming creatures they meet along the way but a thug named Dennis (Alec Baldwin) hired by Plankton to rub them out. The boys make it to Shell City, which turns out to be something quite different from what they expected, and get help returning to Bikini Bottom from none other than “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff, who proves to be a champion swimmer indeed. But once returned they have to contend with the fact that Plankton’s evil schemes go far beyond the food-service industry into a megalomaniacal plot to rule their little world.

There are bits of this scenario that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to “Finding Nemo” (the whole Shell City business recalls the dental office doings in that Pixar picture), but the conventional animation here has a distinctive look of its own, and the writing has a good-natured tone that keeps things from dragging at this extended length. Familiarity with the characters will doubtlessly increase the enjoyment, but even the uninitiated should have a pleasant time.

“SpongeBob” does slip periodically. There are too many of the butt shots that seem obligatory in kiddie movies nowadays, and a few too many belches, too. The big sequence involving Hasselhoff goes on too long and isn’t nearly as funny as the makers obviously intended. And the repeated theme of “kid power”–at one point we even hear the cry of “Kids rule!”–has an unfortunate pandering tone. But for the most part “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” has an easygoing, gentle sweetness that doesn’t cloy, and should entertain family audiences in theatres nicely before taking up permanent residence on home video shelves.