The Bad News Bears Review
There’s an obvious love-affair between what has become the religion of baseball and American society. The game of four bases, a bat and a ball might sound a simple way to spend some recreation time in a Texan field during the summer but the sport that has heralded such icons as Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson, to name but a few, and one that has a following who treat the game as an ideological metaphor for life, show that baseball isn’t just a ‘game’. American cinema has continually celebrated the sport in many films from the subtle to the outlandish but there’s one thing that always holds true – the sport is never just ‘three strikes and you’re out’. There’s clearly more to it, or so we are led to believe – from the fantastical Field Of Dreams, the allegorical The Natural, the comical Major League, and the character study of Bull Durham. There’s even the coming-of-age film The Sandlot about a group of kids who lose their ball over the fence and have to devise many inventive and dangerous techniques to retrieve it before the neighbour’s dog eats it. Suffice to say the latter is a film for children, but it’s a damn good one at that. Certainly, The Sandlot shares more similarities with The Bad News Bears than the others but they all owe a debt to Michael Ritchie’s 1976 film.
The Bad News Bears was applauded by critics on its original release and was one of the top grossing films of 1976. It’s easy to see why as drunk, washed-up ex-ball player Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) takes over the coaching of the league’s perennial losers the Bears. Struggling to keep the kids under his thumb and having to deal with a team who can’t actually play the game let alone win one, Buttermaker has to plan someway to turn the team around before they end up killing each other.
The reason the film is thought of with such high regard is clearly in its less-than-phoney depiction of annoying little children and over-ambitious parents trying to enforce in their son and daughter’s the will to do something they wished they did but never accomplished. Walter Matthau’s beer-guzzling coach never once offers a glimpse of sentiment – his being there clearly not something he particularly cares for, but there is an underlying to his character through his still-existent will to win, an element of wanting to achieve something through the kids he has inherited. The problem being the film never gets to the bottom of any of its principle ideas – one of the best scenes in the film shows a child hold on to the ball allowing the opposing team to score, just to spite his father who embarrassed him in front of the crowd. The parent-child tug of dreams and innocence, and lost-hopes and missed opportunities, is evident but too ambiguous. Buttermaker embodies the father-like figure in the film but his dark side is an avenue under-explored and we get a likeable (largely through his wonderfully dry, line delivery and an element of whimsical pity) but mysterious character that has more layers than those that are only hinted at here.
There’s a distinct level of black, dry humour that runs throughout The Bad News Bears and its inclusion is a virtue in a film that is essentially a children’s movie. However it clouds a differentiation between a light-tale of kids having fun and growing up, and a dark tale of parental abuse and wayward, troubled young children. When the father hits his young son in the middle of the field in front of the crowd, and when Buttermaker pushes his clearly hurting pitcher too far, it’s heartbreaking to watch. Perhaps this is one of the most important aspects of the film, in that it tries to stay truthful without sugar-coating any of its story ideals, but the sense that the director is trying to do too much causes the film’s failings. Trying to juggle many characters from the children to the adults is hard enough but when attempting to focus on some important aspects of the story, the film falls down, because it ultimately tries to do too much and can’t balance out the divide between adults and children.
Yet The Bad News Bears has had an influence on all the baseball films mentioned, and certainly, its influence on sports movies as a genre is without question. Like Peter Yates’ Breaking Away (1979) - a coming-of-age tale told through the sport of bicycle racing, both films create emotion through the motivations of their characters rather than emotional manipulation through the sport. However, the sport plays an equally important part, much like an additional character, which structures that motivation. What is great about both films is that the sport becomes the innocence within those that pursue dreams of competing in it – it presents a clear mentality between the simple goal of winning and the desperation of preventing loss, but like life, nothing is easily attainable and both necessitate choices, sacrifice and spirit. Both films approach this idea from similar but ultimately different points of view, yet the message remains the same.
There’s plenty to like about The Bad News Bears, not least Walter Matthau as Buttermaker, whose inebriated, care-less attitude is a wonderful basis for his character’s bone dry nuances. A young Tatum O’Neal is also excellent, sparring with Matthau as the two character’s sometimes dysfunctional relationship is one of the great achievements of the film, but yet there’s still something missing, so while The Bad News Bears is enjoyable, its muddled focus prevents it from greatness.
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphic enhanced. Unfortunately, the print hasn’t aged well showing obvious signs of wear and tear – it looks far too dark which is off-putting but edge-enhancement becomes troublesome throughout and softness and lack of detail mar what is a poor image.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 has clear dialogue but the surround speakers have nothing to do meaning you are better off watching the film in its original mono soundtrack which is thankfully presented here.
The Bad News Bears is a highly-regarded baseball film in the United States and it’s clear why, but in Europe where baseball is predominantly seen as the Olympic sport they never show on television, the film’s flaws stand out a little more. It’s an endearing, enjoyable film but its unfocused nature lets it down. It’s also a shame this Paramount DVD lacks any additional material and the audio and video elements are well-below average.