Director – Lin Huida – 2022 – China – Cert. PG – 100m
The latest movie in this long-running, animated Chinese franchise, hugely successful at the Chinese (and therefore global) box office, is the first to get a UK cinema release – in a dubbed format for family audiences – out in UK cinemas on Friday, May 27th
Urban bear superhero Bramble (voiced in the English language version by Joseph S. Lambert) successfully battles and defeats a monster formed from the garbage that people in the city have failed to properly throw away, lapping up the ensuing admiration from local child and cute animal residents until rudely awakened from his urban daydream by the human Vick (voice: Paul ‘Maxx’ Rinehart), who wants him to clean up the litter in the rest area of the Pine Tree Mountain forest / national park where they live.
Motivated by the promise of an ice cream on completion, Bramble speedily undertakes the task by racing around gathering the detritus in his arms only to come a cropper at the very end, spilling all the collected rubbish at its allotted bins. Although he has the best intentions and tries hard, Bramble is not the smartest bear in the woodlands. That honour goes to his less accident-prone, older brother Briar (voice: Kieran Katarey), apparently the main protagonist of previous Boonie Bears movies.
Meanwhile, in the skies above, fighter planes fail to shoot down or capture an alien spaceship resembling a cube. Back on the ground, wandering around on his own, Bramble stumbles upon a hand-sized piece of alien technology which uploads vast amounts of scientific knowledge into his brain…
…before running into Avi (voice: Sara Secora), an alien who resembles a talking kitten with six rather than two ears and who needs to access that implanted knowledge to fly his spaceship. Avi fights, torments and overpowers Bramble, setting up impromptu tableaux that make it look to his peers as if Bramble has mistreated this adorable kitten (who can hide four of his six ears at will).
Retrieving the spaceship from local, pickup truck-driving scavengers Maurice and Albert (voices: Kieran Katarey and Joseph S. Lambert again), who were hoping to sell it for quick and easy cash, Bramble and Avi travel to first the moon then Saturn.
Avi tells Bramble his story: he is one of the few surviving Ryotans, a race who built an advanced civilization on Earth only to descend into war and make the planet uninhabitable for millennia. Forced to leave Earth in spaceships Avi describes as “coffins”, they scoured space in search of another planet as potentially inhabitable as Earth only to be sucked into a black hole. Avi was saved when his parents loaded him into a small spaceship and shot him out of the black hole’s path shortly before it destroyed their larger ship. Believing they may somehow still be alive, Avi with Bramble in tow sets out to find them, heading to Earth’s South Pole where the prime Ryotan city has been protected from environmental catastrophe by a protective shield.
Neither are aware of insect-like robots on the bottom of their ship tracking them for stylish arms dealers Mr and Mrs Cruz (voices: Christopher Price and Olivia Seaton-Hill) who trick Bramble’s elder brother Briar plus Vick and others into fighting the bear and his alien friend and hope Avi will lead them to the Quasar, a device which will bestow ultimate power on the user – if s/he can control it. In the past, the Quasar has proved too much to handle for any would be masters and has rampaged through cities and civilizations destroying them kaiju fashion. Sure enough, when Mrs Cruz attempts this, she proves no match for the Quasar, resulting in an uncontrollable monster which must be stopped before it lays waste to everything.
This walks a strange tightrope between family-friendly buddy movie, kaiju romp, sci-fi, questionable weapons fetishism and even, at one point, the musical – when the arms dealer couple break into a lavish song-and-dance routine featuring numerous henchmen to persuade Bramble’s friends to join forces with them. The buddy movie element is nicely handled, contrasting the oft self-sabotaging Bramble’s desire to be a hero admired by his peers with Avi’s wish to be reunited with his parents, even though they are probably dead.
Bramble learns to pilot a cuboid ship mecha style, a piece of hardware strikingly rendered in animation in several disparate parts as it flies, walks and runs. For the climactic Quasar battle, Bramble’s cuboid becomes encased in stone – first as a giant, flying fist and later as an entire humanoid (loosely reminiscent of The Thing in Marvel’s Fantastic Four comics).
As for the weaponry, when Avi’s ship first appears, it’s hunted by jet pilots, introducing an element of shoot-to-kill air defence into what has hitherto been about animals and people in a forest, which is where the original TV show and earlier films start off. Similar has been done in numerous SF TV series and films.
However, when we first encounter the arms dealers’ massive space battleship, every inch of its considerable surface area is comically given over to missile launch tubes, a humourous, gung ho sensibility which sits uneasily with either the franchise’s unspoiled outdoors origins or the alien boy’s search for his parents. Maybe it’s a Chinese thing (see Black Cat Detective, Dai Tielang, 2010, which does something similarly violent with armed police pursuing criminals), but the idea of introducing war and weaponry to children in such a light-hearted manner seems dubious at best.
However inappropriate the presence of arms dealers as characters in a children’s movie, a special mention should go to the character design of this couple. He is a big guy loosely reminiscent of the eponymous arcade computer game character of Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph (Rich Moore, 2013), she a comparatively diminutive, thin, shapely and glamorous woman; as a pair of villains, they make a considerable visual impression.
Boonie Bears is a huge franchise in China where it started life as a TV series before spawning a series of movies, of which this appears to be the tenth. Having sat through numerous terrible children’s animated films in my time I’m wary of such films, but this movie is engaging enough for either children or adults.
The Chinese movie is dubbed into English for its UK theatrical release. Dubbing in the case of animated films can vary enormously in quality. The purist in me would like to see a subtitled version in the original Chinese language, but I confess that if animation is dubbed well, that’s fine. And this is dubbed well provided you don’t mind the American English accents.
The film is complete in itself and doesn’t require the viewer to be familiar with either the earlier films or the TV series. The alien and arms dealer couple are new characters, as indeed is the space travel / sci-fi element, with previous films and TV concentrating on the characters in the forest / national park. It’s apparently the first movie of the franchise to focus on younger bear Bramble, his elder brother Briar being the focus prior to this. Incidentally, Bramble is the one with the yellowish fur and Briar the one with reddish fur.
If they’re as good as this, it remains a mystery as to why the previous films haven’t had a UK cinema release. Most if not all of them can be found on Sky TV in the UK, although the visual detail of the animation here makes this latest film (at least) well worth seeing on a big cinema screen.
Boonie Bears: Back To Earth is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, May 27th.