Like Mike

“Like Mike” appeals to young viewers without talking down to them, provides a few uplifting messages, and is generally a pleasant 100-minute diversion. It contains no real profanity and not a hint of crudeness. It’s a wonder it ever got made.

Take, for instance, the scene where polite orphan Calvin Cambridge (Li’l Bow Wow) has discovered the joys of room service by gorging himself in a swanky hotel. He feels sick and heads for the bathroom, where whatever vomiting there is occurs noiselessly and discreetly behind a closed door, without so much as a belch being forced upon the viewer. The film has managed to find humor elsewhere, without resorting to gross tricks that even the animated features these days all seem required to include.

If a movie has to be wholesome OR enjoyable, I’d rather it be enjoyable. But when one comes along that’s both, I’m glad to recommend it.

“Like Mike” is such a film — aimed squarely at young boys, to be sure, but not intolerable for adults. In Li’l Bow Wow, who I’m told is a rap star in real life, we have a young actor who is completely devoid of the brag and swagger that characterize most of his hip-hop colleagues. He’s earnest and unassuming — good qualities for a person, as well as for the character he plays.

That is the aforementioned Calvin, a 14-year-old Los Angeles orphan with pigtails (?) who lives in a group home run by an unscrupulous villain (Crispin Glover) and filled with cast-off children like himself. He would like to be a good basketball player, but he is short and rather unskilled. Until, that is, the day he happens upon an old pair of sneakers once owned by Michael Jordan. He rescues them from a telephone wire just as lightning strikes it, killing him instantly.

No! I kid the li’l guy. The lightning imbues the shoes with the very essence of Michael Jordan, I guess; the film is not specific on the science involved. (Perhaps his powers being transferred to an old pair of shoes is why MJ did so poorly in his most recent comeback effort.)

Anyway, Calvin discovers the sneakers’ special powers when, during a half-time exhibition, he gets a chance to go one-on-one with NBA star Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut). He destroys Reynolds him, and as a stunt, the team owner (Eugene Levy) signs Calvin on as a player.

Thus begins an uneasy relationship between Calvin and his new mentor, Tracey, who is understandably perturbed at having to baby-sit a 4’8″ orphan when the team’s on the road. Thus also begins the standard trouble between Calvin and his friends back at the orphanage, who of course feel he has changed since becoming a celebrity. And if any villain can get his hands on those shoes, it will all be over…!

I like children’s movies where the adults are kind. The team owner is slick but not exploitative; the coach (Robert Forster) is downright fatherly; and Tracey grows to like the kid. Only Crispin Glover’s evil orphan master is menacing, but he’s such a joke — what else can Crispin Glover be, at this point? — that it adds an element of fun, rather than discomfort, to the mix. What could have been a Dickensian (or Roald Dahl-ian) dark tale of children in a grown-up world is instead just a sweet-hearted romp without any real danger.

There is a rather awkward sequence where Calvin risks his career to help Tracey avoid being suspended, and another scene with a goony procession of would-be adoptive parents that is too farcical to fit with the rest of the film. Those are mistakes. But otherwise, this is such a wide-eyed, good-natured movie that you can’t help smiling along with it.

B (1 hr., 40 min.; PG, one mild profanity.)