While I wonít claim that 1976ís The Bad News Bears was definitely the first of its kind, it seems unquestionable that it firmly established its own genre. After Bears and its two sequels - 1977ís The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and 1978ís The Bad New Bears Go to Japan - weíve seen a slew of similar flicks. From 1992ís The Mighty Ducks through 2001ís Hardball, weíve encountered many films that feature overachieving sports teams of mismatched youngsters led by very reluctant and flawed coaches.
Bears came out of nowhere in 1976 and turned into one of the yearís biggest hits. Personally, I loved these flicks when I was a kid. I thought the original was fun and I also really enjoyed Breaking Training; actually, my memories of the latter are fonder than those of the first film. Only Japan seemed to be a dud; I recall feeling no affection for it. (Bears also spawned a short-lived TV series in 1979; I donít remember my reaction to it.)
Since Iíve not seen any of these movies in decades, Iíll be curious to encounter them again. Will I still like Breaking Training and hate Japan? I donít know about those yet, as Iím taking the films in release order. As such, right now I can only address the first Bears flick.
At the start of Bears, we meet Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a semi-alcoholic former minor leaguer who now cleans pools. A local politician named Whitewood (Ben Piazza) hires Buttermaker to coach a new team formed in a very competitive southern California Little League division. Of course, Little League coaches are supposed to work unpaid, but mercenary and callous Buttermaker just wants a little extra cash to supplement his meager income.
The new team - called the Bears - was formed due to legal actions taken by Whitewood. Apparently the league in question refused to accept a lot of seemingly less-talented kids, and Whitewood needs a team for his son Toby (David Stambaugh). As such, the Bears are a repository for all of the outcasts who couldnít make the already-established teams.
Inevitably, this group of misfits stinks at the start. Buttermaker does little to coach them and they quickly become the laughingstock of the league. In their first game against the league champions Yankees - coached by excessively intense Roy Turner (Vic Morrow), they get beaten so badly that Buttermaker needs to forfeit the game.
Although he initially only cares about the money, eventually Buttermaker gets tired of the derision and tries to really shape his team into something better. As part of this, he recruits ace pitcher Amanda Wurlitzer (Tatum OíNeal). The daughter of an ex-girlfriend, he taught Amanda skills that made her an excellent hurler, and she proceeds to add respectability to the Bears.
The final piece of the puzzle arrives with juvenile delinquent Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley). A prototypical bad boy with terrific hitting and fielding skills, Amanda tries to land him for the club but fails. However, when Turner gives Kelly a severe chewing-out and tells the kid heís a loser who isnít good enough for this final baseball league, he has something to prove and hooks up with the Bears.
From there, the team goes on a dizzying run during which they beat pretty much everybody in sight except for the ever-daunting Yankees. Nonetheless, they do well enough to earn a spot in the league championship game against their archrivals.
Unfortunately, along the way Buttermaker turns into something of a jerk. Like the hated Turner, he becomes wrapped up in winning at all costs, and it takes its toll on his relationships with the kids. When she indicates a desire to see him in the off-season, Buttermaker basically tells Amanda heís just using her, and he berates the other players to an excessive degree.
Will Buttermaker see the light and come to his senses? Will the Bears beat the Yankees and become league champions? I donít want to give away all of the plot surprises, so Iíll leave well enough alone. However, I will note that Bears doesnít end as predictably as one might expect.
Does the film still hold up after more than a quarter of a century? For the most part, it does, though some definite flaws exist. Overall, I enjoyed Bears and thought it was a refreshingly unsentimental view of the subject matter. However, it suffers from some inconsistencies that make it a bit less effective.
Most of these relate to character development, which seems very weak. We learn bits and pieces about the various personalities as the film progresses, but a lot of these never really appear to coalesce. Buttermaker is the best-drawn role in the bunch, and even he feels somewhat sketchy. The others come and go in their prominence. One might expect Amanda to be one of the main characters, but sheís really not; despite OíNealís high billing, she doesnít get significantly greater screen time than many of the other kids.
In that way, Bears suffers from a lack of focus as Ritchie never seems very sure where he wants to concentrate his energy. With such a large cast, itís absolutely inevitable that many of the kids would remain little more than vague characterizations, but at least a handful of them should have been more than that. Yes, Amanda, Kelly, and a couple of others were better developed than the rest, but I still think their personalities seem too one-dimensional.
I also found Buttermakerís journey from apathetic mercenary to helpful coach to rabid competitor to appear somewhat unconvincing. He just has too far to go throughout the movie, though Matthau helps pull off the changes fairly well. He goes beyond the script to turn Buttermaker into a less cartoony personality; he never quite seems like a real person, but he certainly avoids the excesses that could have plagued the role.
Otherwise, the acting appeared pretty solid across the board. I thought OíNeal was fairly still and awkward as Amanda, but the remaining kids seemed interesting and compelling for the most part. Thereís still some flat work at times, but the kids did more to add to the flick than to detract from it.
Really, the first half of Bears seemed more compelling than the second. The film rushes too quickly through the teamís success and spends much too much time on the climactic game. It also worked too hard to attempt depth. Bears tried to develop drama and sparks between the personalities but failed; it functioned better as a light comedy than as a character drama.
Nonetheless, even with a variety of flaws, The Bad News Bears remains an enjoyable flick. It benefits from usually solid acting and a nicely blunt tone that lacks many syrupy elements. I donít like the film as much as I did when I was a kid, but it still has some good moments and is one of the better efforts in its genre.
Movie connections department: via the kids of Bears, we find many links to other works and personalities. I believe that Jackie Earle Haley is the grandson of Wizard Of Oz Tin Man Jack Haley, and I also think that Brett Marx (who played Bear Jimmy Feldman) is the grandson of Harpo Marx. Despite Internet searches, I couldnít confirm either, but darned if Brett doesnít look just like Harpo.
Of course, Tatum is the daughter of Ryan OíNeal as well. And if Woody Allen fans think Alfred Lutter III - who portrayed Ogilvie - looked familiar, thatís because he played the younger Woodman in 1975ís Love and Death.
The Bad News Bears appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture offered something of a mixed bag, as parts of it looked very good, but enough flaws occurred to cause a variety of issues.
Sharpness was not one of those issues, however, as the movie consistently looked very crisp and well defined. Virtually no evidence of softness appeared, as the film remained distinct and accurate at all times. Jagged edges and moirť effects also caused no concerns, but I did note some light edge enhancement on occasion. That tendency never became severe, but it created periodic distractions.
Though not overwhelming, print flaws offered additional issues. Actually, during the early parts of the film, it looked surprisingly free of defects. Some light grain seemed prominent during those sections, and a few speckles appeared as well, but I saw little that was problematic. Unfortunately, as Bears progressed, it became more flawed, especially during the third act. Grain remained light but noticeable, whereas the other elements seemed more pronounced. I saw a minor amount of grit, small nicks and general debris in the movieís last act. Speckles were the most prevalent, as quite a few white spots appeared.
Colors offered a strong aspect of the film, as they consistently seemed nicely bright and vivid. Most of the movie took place outdoors in the daylight, and the photography reflected this fact; I saw hues that appeared clear and vibrant across the board. Unfortunately, the daytime shots caused some problems in regard to shadows; many times the sunlight fell in such a way that the actorsí faces became obscured. Interiors also looked somewhat dark and heavy at times as well, but since the action usually occurred outdoors, that wasnít as much of a problem. Nonetheless, too much of the film seemed a little difficult to see. Overall, given the age of the material, Bears offered a reasonably good image, but it wasnít a terrific picture.
Similar thoughts greeted the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Bad News Bears. Taken from the original monaural mix - which also appears on the DVD - the soundfield opened up the audio to a decent degree. The track showed very nice stereo separation for the music, and some ambient effects also spread neatly to the front side speakers. For the most part, these remained fairly general, but a little movement occurred as well. For example, Kellyís bike traveled cleanly from side to side. Surround usage seemed exceedingly limited; other than light environmental sounds and musical reinforcement, I heard nothing from the rears.
While the expanded soundfield worked well, the quality of the audio seemed more problematic. Speech caused moderate concerns. Much of the dialogue appeared edgy and rough. At best, the lines appeared somewhat flat and dull, but at worst, they came across as fairly shrill. They remained reasonably intelligible across the board, but still didnít present clear audio.
The other elements fared better but still had issues. Effects usually appeared acceptably clean and accurate, but they also displayed some minor distortion at times. Those elements werenít particularly lively or rich, but they showed decent range considering their age. For the most part, the music sounded quite good. The score also lacked strong low-end response, but it came across as pretty bright and distinct and lacked noticeable distortion.
More problematic, however, was the hiss that accompanied the music much of the time. Actually, that noise also appeared during other scenes and could become quite distracting. The climactic ballgame offered the worst examples of this, as some segments featured rather heavy hiss. In the end, the soundtrack of The Bad News Bears did enough right to merit a ďC+Ē, but it definitely showed a mix of weaknesses.
In regard to supplements, thisíll be a short discussion. Bears includes nothing, not even a trailer. This seems like a missed opportunity, as a retrospective that regrouped the Bears would have been fun.
Nonetheless, The Bad News Bears offered a pretty entertaining piece of work. The film itself was fairly inconsistent and had a number of flaws, but it remained interesting and compelling as a whole. The DVD also suffered from erratic tendencies. Both picture and sound were acceptable but could be problematic, and the disc provided absolutely no extras. Well, at least Paramount has started to drop prices; $24.99 still seems high for a movie-only flick, but it beats $30 bare-bones sets like theyíve produced in the past. Even with the various defects, Bad News Bears fans should be pretty pleased with this release.