By all rights, "Like Mike" should be a lousy movie. Designed as a slap-dash kiddie flick, built around a dumb plot device (magic sneakers turn a young orphan into an NBA all-star) and starring a flash-in-the-pan novelty hip-hopper (Lil' Bow Wow), its overall concept is thick with seemingly predictable, third-hand story elements. Will the kid find adoptive parents? Will his team win the big game? Well, duh.
But director John Schultz ("Drive Me Crazy") doesn't use the shoes as a storytelling crutch (they account for about four minutes of the whole movie), he gets charismatic performances from his cast of talented players, and he beats down almost every encroaching cliché, creating in their stead a smart kids' picture of delightful surprises.
Sure, as the film begins street-smart but endearingly sweet 14-year-old Calvin Cambridge (Bow Wow) is living in a laughably diverse group home (his two best friends are a white boy played by "Jerry Maguire's" Jonathan Lipnicki and an Asian girl played by Brenda Song), where he's picked on by a teenage bully and dreams of being adopted. "Parents only want the puppies," he moans.
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