Old-fashioned and predictable but surprisingly sweet and good-natured, the film debut of young rapper Lil Bow Wow is rather like a Disney teleflick that’s escaped its Sunday night network timeslot and found its way to the big screen. But not to worry: it resembles one of those good television movies that the whole family can enjoy together. “Like Mike” lacks the pizzazz of a “Spy Kids 2” and the technical virtuosity of a “Stuart Little 2,” but in its simple, straightforward way it works better than many of the high-tech kiddie flicks that Hollywood churns out nowadays.
The story could come straight out of the fifties. Calvin Cambridge (Bow Wow) is an orphan in an L.A. group home, where his best buddies are the angelic Murph (Jonathan Lipnicki, from “Jerry Maguire” and the “Stuart Little” franchise) and tomboy Reg (Brenda Song). He and his friends are mistreated by the obligatory bully Ox (Jesse Plemons), but the real villain of the place is head honcho Stan Bittleman (Crispin Glover), who forces his charges to go out and sell candy bars on the street to line his own pocket. Calvin dreams of being a basketball star, but his short height and meager talent stand in the way until he puts on a pair of old sneakers that are reported to have once been worn by a young Michael Jordan; suddenly he can do no wrong on the court–a fact he proves during a halftime promotional stunt when he shows up Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut), the star of the lackluster L.A. Knights. Desperate for something to draw crowds, team manager Frank Bernard (Eugene Levy) persuades a dubious Coach Wagner (Robert Forster) to sign Calvin up for the team, intending to use him merely as a kind of mascot; but before long the kid becomes a sensation and the Knights close in on a playoff slot. Meanwhile Calvin and Tracey, forced to be roommates, bond after some humorous run-ins. The frantic finale comes when Bittleman learns of the sneakers’ magic and steals them in order to hit it big by betting against the Knights. Can Calvin and his comrades outmaneuver him to save the day? And more importantly, will Calvin finally find a dad?
In resolving everything, “Like Mike” offers no surprises whatever, but the very familiarity is somehow comforting. And while the picture is hardly a technical marvel–the production is at best adequate, John Schultz’s direction no more than workmanlike, and the special effects decidedly bottom-drawer–it works because its heart is in the right place and it’s been well cast. Bow Wow is no master thespian, but he’s enthusiastic and likable, and he’s well paired with the more timorous Lipnicki, who’s still young enough to be reasonably cute. Chestnut is excellent as the Knights’ all-star, catching the character’s mixture of smugness and tenderness very nicely, while Levy does a fine job, as usual, playing a pushy and officious bottom-line guy. Then there’s Glover, whose patented weirdness here takes on almost Dickensian overtones, accentuating the “Oliver Twist” elements of the plot. The one part of the picture that doesn’t really work involves the couples that consider adopting Calvin after he’s achieved fame on the court. The parade of stereotypes employed is depressingly obvious. The picture was made in association with the NBA, so it’s understandable that a host of league players should pop in for cameo appearances. They all seem good sports, but it doesn’t appear that any of them should abandon the court for the soundstage.
“Like Mike” may remind you somewhat of TV sitcom cliche, but ultimately its essential warmth and charm win out. To modify the famous election button of 1952, you should like “Mike.”