Directors – Lin Yongchang, Shao Heqi – 2023 – China – Cert. PG – 99m
Abandoned by their mother as children, bear siblings Bramble and Briar uncover a conspiracy involving roboticists and robots – in a dubbed format for family audiences – out in cinemas on Friday, May 26th following its premiere at the Prince Charles Cinema around midday on Saturday, May 13th
Bear cubs Bramble (voiced in the English language version by Siobhan Lumsden) and Briar (voice: Nichalia Schwartz) enjoy and idyllic life in the Pine Tree Mountain forest in the care of their loving, lullaby-singing mother Barbara (voice: Kally Khourshid). Barbara shows them her amber pendant containing a moon and a star shape, one for each of her two cubs who have those shapes in light patches of fur on their chests. (Bramble is the one with the yellowish fur and Briar the one with reddish fur.)
One day, Briar sees her walk away through the burning ruins of a house as if she never knew him. The brothers never see her again, growing up on their own and looking out for one another.
Years later, the adult Bramble (voice: Joseph S. Lambert) and Briar (voice: Patrick Freeman), disguised as robots using makeshift fridge and washing machine costumes that would give the robot performer of Brian And Charles (Jim Archer, 2022) a run for his money, are being driven by their best friend the human Vick (voice: Paul ‘Maxx’ Rinehart) along with roboticist Dr. Charlotte (voice: Olivia Seaton-Hill who voiced one half of the arms dealer couple (!) in Boonie Bears Back To Earth, Lin Huida, 2022) to a state-of-the-art robotics expo at Future Bay. “Just call me Charlotte”, says the unassuming roboticist, who is referred to without her professional title for the rest of the narrative.
While the bears undermine the credibility of their disguise as robots when an insect gets inside one of their costumes, Charlotte confirms her roboticist credentials when, amidst an array of amazing display robots at the expo, she reprogrammes from her laptop a rogue cookery robot that’s throwing plates of food at punters’ faces (to the delight of the bears). This sets the tone of the piece, with the idea of robots who can be reprogrammed assuming great significance later on. At the same time, an amber stone looking suspiciously like the one previously worn by the bears’ mother drops out of her rucksack, arousing the bears’ suspicions.
Enter the grateful Dr. Roland (voice: Chris Boike), famed roboticist as in awe of Charlotte’s equally famous, late roboticist mother Dr. Sue (voice: Nicola Vincent, when she later appears in flashback) and her pioneering work, which led to everything on display at the expo, as Charlotte is of him and his work.
Then, the expo is attacked by a gang of robots controlled by snazzily-clad young man Leonard (voice: Chris Boike again) who appears to have modelled his clothes and poses on John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977). He wants Charlotte’s pendant. More significantly, perhaps, in the ensuing fight and pursuit of our heroes by these intruders, one of the pursuers (voice: Khourshid again) removes her costume resembling a samurai robot to reveal herself the spitting image of Barbara, but with white fur. She insists repeatedly to Bramble that she is not his mother. Her name is Ursa and, it turns out, she is working for Leonard because he has kidnapped her small son and won’t return him to her until her mission is complete. There’s a lot more to it than that, though: Ursa is not what she seems. And nor are some of the other characters new to the franchise.
The narrative continues effortlessly through complex twists and turns, with lots of clever ideas worked out and effectively paid off in the brilliantly plotted script that will more than satisfy the adult audience, never mind the kids (better still, unlike Boonie Bears Back To Earth’s arms dealers and serious weaponry, there’s nothing here you might possibly not want small children to see). There are a couple of very minor blips – the plot appears to conclude about half way through only to immediately go into flashback to explain how the narrative got there, which is, to say the least, bizarre. Given the skill with which the script juggles its numerous constituent elements in every other part of the film, that seems a peculiar move.
The other minor blip concerns the generally excellent English language voice dub: when Barbara sings the cubs a song at the start, and Ursa later sings the same song, suggesting she might somehow be Barbara, the lip synch is poor, and your immediate thought is, poor dubbing. Which is odd because although this is dubbed into English, the lip synch throughout the film, apart from the two very brief singing sequences, is near perfect, to the extent that you wouldn’t know this was conceived as a Mandarin Chinese-voiced production. Nerds who care about such things will note that the end credits are entirely in English, indicating that a separate English language print has been made for the film (the usual, worldwide practice is that the same visuals are used, with occasional original language words on signs and end credits appearing in an English dubbed film – not so here).
This sets up an incredible set of characters outside of the series regulars (the bear brothers and Vick), but unlike the similarly set up Minions The Rise Of Gru (Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val, 2022), this doesn’t then through those new characters away: here they are used throughout the narrative to great effect resulting in a better use of its assets and a far more coherent film overall.
The most impressive thing here is the pace and the rapid-fire speed at which locations are introduced or things happen, one after another. For instance, in a scene where the objects on which they are standing give way beneath their feet, first one character goes over the edge to be rescued by a character who tried to save them, then the same thing happens to the rescuer, then the same thing happens to their rescuer. Or something like that, ending up with two of them trapped down below under a ton of fallen stuff. And while this works for tiny people with short attention spans, as previously mentioned, the whole is so coherently plotted that, for the most part, all these little pieces fit together into a coherent whole.
In terms of gender bias, it’s refreshing to see a number of scientists significant to the plot who are women, simply presented as part of the film’s cast without anyone making a big deal out of it.
In terms of the English language voice cast, the production company appears to draw on a regular pool of English-speaking actors to play numerous bit parts, among them Joseph S. Lambert, Chris Boike, Olivia Seaton-Hill, Nicola Vincent, Siobhan Lumsden, Ruth Urquhart and Kieran Katarey (who voiced Briar in Boonie Bears Back To Earth).
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 11th. While Boonie Bears Back To Earth focused on Bramble, and the earlier films focused on Briar, Boonie Bears Guardian Code divides the focus pretty evenly between the two of them, at times separating them into two different plot strands only to bring them back together later on. Despite the frenetic pace, it’s relentlessly inventive and far more enjoyable than much comparable Hollywood family fare. Breathlessly entertaining, in fact, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Boonie Bears Guardian Code is out in cinemas in the UK – in a dubbed format for family audiences– on Friday, May 26th following its premiere at the Prince Charles Cinema (info here) at 12.45pm on Saturday, May 13th.