'Like Mike' likeable

Will Smith, watch your back.

Fourteen-year-old Lil' Bow Wow is a better rapper than you are, he's cuter, and he's almost as good an actor. In "Like Mike," Lil' plays Calvin, an orphan who becomes the youngest, shortest, funkiest player in the NBA after he tries on a pair of Michael Jordan's cast-off sneakers that make him play like Mike. Trouble is, eventually, the clock will strike midnight, and then what will little Dunkerella do?

As far as entertainers go, Lil' Bow Wow is about as fresh as they come, but "Like Mike" is an old-fashioned family movie with a polite, soulful hero, a solid message, only two mild curses (neither said by children), a good heart and affectionate humor. There is no irony in "Like Mike." Its orphaned youths are not so worried about being cool that they can't be enthusiastic about Calvin's amazing journey, and there's a real sense of wonder in the scenes in which Calvin and his hard-knock buds meet their dunking idols.

Unlike most movies for children, "Like Mike" was made with care. The jokes have rhythm and timing instead of the toss-a-bunch-of-scattershot-gags-and-see-if-any-stick approach. And the cast is almost overqualified, what with Robert Forster, Anne Meara and Eugene Levy in small parts (you don't cast the satisfyingly odd Crispin Glover as the bad guy if you're trying to make a movie like every other movie).

You could argue that "Like Mike" is too sugar-coated. These orphans don't have problems real orphans would, and the NBA, which helped produce the film, comes off as squeaky clean (even an easy opportunity to insert an NBA groupie-sharing joke is avoided).

But this is a fantasy in which young audiences get to see kids doing cool adult stuff like drive a car, execute a vertical leap that looks like something from the Kennedy Space Center and pig out on room service.

Oh, and they also get to watch Lil' Bow Wow, someone who looks quite a bit like them, become a big, big star.

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