The Bad New Bears is the story of an odd-ball youth baseball team that rises up to challenge the perfect team. The story begins when a city councilman wins his lawsuit against the Southern California Little League challenging the exclusion of the least athletically skilled children. To settle the suit, the League allows the councilman to form another team, the Bears, for these less than gifted kids and they will get to play.
Naturally, the team is a mess. Their pitcher is near-sighted. Their catcher is the immobile fat kid. They have two Mexican kids who can’t speak English. Their shortstop is a small kid who is prone to violence against bigger kids. They even have a kid, Lupus, who is so withdrawn that it seems to be a mental condition; he's afraid to swing the bat. One player describes the team as “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies and a booger-eating moron.” Even worse, the coach who has been chosen to lead this team of misfits is former minor-league ball player and current alcoholic Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau).
The team’s first game is a disaster and they are forced to forfeit after a humiliating beating. After this, Buttermaker decides to add some talent to the roster. Specifically, he finds Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the eleven year old daughter of one of his former girlfriends, who is a pitching savant. She refuses at first because she wants to torture Buttermaker a bit, but eventually she agrees. He also adds Kelly, a motorcycle-riding, smoking troublemaker. Kelly can run rings around the rest of the team and Buttermaker wants him to do so. Unfortunately, this creates ill will and Buttermaker must learn to trust the kids to rise to the occasion rather than relying on Kelly. Naturally, the Bears begin to get better bit by bit and eventually they end up playing the evil Yankees and their even more evil coach (Vic Morrow) for the little league pennant.
This is a fantastic movie on many levels. First, Matthau puts in another excellent performance. He truly is an amazing actor at presenting unlikable characters and making them sympathetic. I would dare say that he is vastly underrated as an actor. The film is also very well written and delivers a great many surprising moments, something you really don’t expect from a sports film. Indeed, while this film is a formula sports film in many ways, it never feels like it because it diverges from the formula more than enough to feel like a genuine story.
Further, this film is an amazing time capsule of a film. The 1970’s were a high-water mark for great times to grow up. By the 1980’s, kids became latchkey kids as divorce soared and yuppie parents had only single children and even then traded their time with them for that second BMW. This was also the beginning of the obsession with safety and childproofing childhood. The 1990’s were beset with the peak of hateful feminism and fringe religious nuttery. Little girls either became little boys or submissive sister-wives and boys were told to play with Barbie. At the same time, racial tensions and de facto segregation were stoked by things like the OJ trial. Anyone raised in the 2000’s grew up paranoid of terrorism. The 1970’s had none of that. We grew up eating sugared cereal, riding bikes without helmets, telling dirty and racist/sexist jokes with our minority friends, driving in convertibles without seatbelts and rocking out to a musical and cinematic golden age. This film captures that spirit like a time capsule. In fact, I can’t think of a film that better presents an era than this one.
Notice what’s missing too. There are no “hockey dads” who are ready to shoot each other dead over playing time. The kids throw punches without the cops being called. Nobody’s taking growth hormones or steroids. No one is whining about safety or peanut allergies or the fairness of keeping score. The “villain” is an opposing coach who is pushing his own son too hard... not a sniveling businessman trying to destroy the environment by sabotaging the Bears somehow. This film presents a time when people enjoyed life without worrying about the most hypersensitive prick and/or prickette in the room.
Finally, perhaps the most important thing this film has going for it is that it’s just a fun film. So many films today, especially formula films like Bears, just aren’t very fun. In fact, check the remake which is full of cruelty and spite, but entirely devoid of fun.