The folks who brought you the “Air Bud” movies about a basketball- (and, in the sequel, football-) playing pooch offer a radical revision of their formula by bringing us a hockey-playing chimpanzee in “MVP: Most Valuable Primate.” Like its two doggie predecessors (and there’s yet a third “Air Bud” on the way), this kiddie flick is relentlessly nice and soft-grained, and it boasts a whole array of uplifting messages, rather like one of Disney’s sappier live-action films from the fifties or sixties. But while it may well amuse very young children (up to the age of six or eight, say) with its collection of monkey antics, older kids will find it hopelessly slow and hokey, and even the most tolerant parents will probably be squirming in their seats long before it ambles to a close.
The admittedly juvenile premise of “MWP” is that a brainy chimp from a California research institute makes his way, after the death of his kindly old mentor (tastefully depicted, of course), to a small, snowy town in Canada, where recent U.S. transplant Steven Westover (Kevin Zegers) and his deaf sister Tara (Jamie Renee Smith) are having difficulty adjusting to the new environment. Tara, an intelligent and resourceful gal, is finding it hard to make friends, while Steven, a standout hockey player back in the States, is forced to join a local team composed of lazy has-beens who care little about playing their best. Into their lives pops chimp Jack, who soon shows his skating dexterity and becomes the sparkplug in the rejuvenation of Steven’s team (and the means by which Tara finds friendship). But the wicked dean of the school where Jack once resided (Oliver Muirhead, doing a very bad impersonation of Jeffrey Jones’ principal from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) is tracking the monkey down to reclaim and sell him. Can his evil plan be foiled? Can Jack make it back to his mommy at a wildlife refuge? Can Steven’s team win the big game? Can Tara find happiness?
Can you doubt the answers to any of these questions? The problem with “MVP,” except for the very youngest viewers, will be that it offers absolutely nothing new, proceeding along a resolutely predictable course and repeating the same sort of monkeyshines that cute chimps have provided in countless earlier flicks. Some of the “problems” resolved over the span of the plot are almost absurdly simple-minded: a hapless goalie is turned into a star by the simple expedient of getting him some glasses, for example. Indeed, the only remotely surprising thing about the picture is that it presents all the adult characters as half-wits; and given that the picture is a Canadian production, it’s particularly odd that it perpetuates the dumbest stereotypes about our neighbors to the north–eh?
Still, the chimps will likely be cute enough to keep the tykes amused (Jack is actually played by three animals), and it’s nice that the sequences involving Jack are done fairly straight, without the use of animatronics or computer imaging. (A few skating scenes are obviously speeded-up, but that’s a minor matter.) This might well be the result of the picture’s very modest budget, but it’s still a charmingly old-fashioned touch. Zegers, who also starred in the “Air Bud” films, remains a likable guy, though he’s sometimes stiff, and Smith has an ingratiating smile. Nostalgia buffs may be interested in the presence of Dave Thomas, of SCTV fame, who plays the announcer providing supposedly funny commentary on the hockey games; he hasn’t aged gracefully, it must be said, and he’s certainly no Fred Willard (see “Best in Show”) on the laugh-meter.
So “MVP” is certainly well-intentioned and harmless; but it’s also stodgy and overly familiar. In the current cultural climate it would surely be more at home on the small screen or in the video store than in theatres. And that’s where it will very soon wind up.