THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Spike Lee, playing the character Mars Blackmon, once famously said about Michael Jordan, "It's gotta be da shoes!" In the new movie Like Mike, it really is the shoes - a pair of old basketball sneakers conspicuously initialed "MJ" to be exact. The shoes fall into the hands of Calvin Cambridge (rapper Lil Bow Wow), an orphan who loves the game but is routinely ridiculed for his lack of ability in it. Calvin finds the shoes in a batch of old clothing donated to the orphanage by "some famous basketball player," according to Sister Theresa (Anne Meara).

Calvin's sneakers are quickly confiscated by the orphanage bully and chucked into the power lines. With the help of best buddy Murph (Jonathan Lipnicki), Calvin climbs up and grabs the shoes just as the lines are struck by lightning. When he puts them on, he discovers that they are magically powered. He is suddenly blessed with basketball skills matching those of his idol.

During a pro game for the fictional Los Angeles Knights, Calvin wins a half-time contest where the prize is a chance to play one-on-one against Tracy Reynolds (Morris Chestnut). When he outshines the team's star player, a savvy promoter (Eugene Levy) and the team coach (Robert Forster) sign Calvin up to play for real. This sits well with the greedy orphanage director, Mr. Bittleman (Crispin Glover), who sees the chance to profit.

Lil Bow Wow earns a slam dunk with his debut feature Like Mike
Like Mike is one of those movies that manages to overcome a very generic story through sheer charm and likability. The subplots are as predictable as their outcomes: Tracy envies the way Calvin keeps showing him up, the team needs to pull together in order to get to their first-ever championship series, Bittleman tries to keep Calvin under his thumb. There's even a plot thread involving the developing father/son relationship between Tracy and Calvin. Anyone who's ever seen a movie will know how each of these issues will be resolved long before the characters do.

And yet it doesn't matter. Like Mike is sweet and funny - a feel-good movie in the truest sense of the word. Lil Bow Wow proves himself a charismatic performer, able to make you care about his character without resorting to cutesy camera mugging. He plays Calvin as a smart kid, desperately longing for a family. Although I knew he would get one at the end, I still felt my empathy for him growing. It helps that the film has a strong supporting performance from Morris Chestnut that supplies unexpected depth. If Bow Wow is the heart of the story, Chestnut is its soul. The two actors generate such warm chemistry that the obvious mechanics of the plot are easily overlooked.

This is also just a great wish-fulfillment tale. What kid wouldn't love to play on a pro basketball team? Director John Schultz packs the movie with cameos from real players (like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd) that give it a bit of authenticity. Seeing little Calvin go toe-to-toe (or, more accurately, face-to-kneecap) against the stars of the game is loads of fun.

Like Mike is a wonderful film for kids and families, but there was one thing that left me disappointed: Michael Jordan himself is strangely absent. I really expected a cameo. Wouldn't it have been great to have the Knights take on the Washington Wizards in the playoffs so that Calvin could play against his hero? Maybe would have been too much to believe that the Wizards could advance that far. But the kid with the magic shoes? Now, that I believed.

( out of four)

Like Mike is rated PG for brief mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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