After a Marvel-style flip through comicstrip panels, Huida Lin’s Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (Xiong chu mo: Chong fan di qiu) opens in space, with an ursine figure declaring, “Hello, everyone, I’m Superbear Bramble”, before swooping down to Earth “to take out the trash.” This costumed defender easily puts down a variety of creatures, all monstrous embodiments of pollution, in a towering cityscape, and is then applauded for his heroism by all his friends.
It may seem that Bramble Bear (here voiced in the English dub by Joseph S. Lambert) has joined the ranks of Abbott and Costello (Charles Lamont’s Abbot and Costello Go To Mars, 1953), James Bond (Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker, 1979), Pinhead (Kevin Yagher and Joe Chappelle’s Hellraiser: Bloodlines, 1996), Jason Voorhees (Jim Isaac’s Jason X, 2001), Ghostface (if not, so far, in the series Scream, then in its series-within-a-series Stab), and Isador ‘Machete’ Cortez (in Robert Rodriguez’s long-promised Machete Kills in Space) for taking a hitherto earthbound franchise beyond our planet.
In fact, though, it is only Bramble’s head that is in the clouds, as the lazy, icecream-addicted bear snoozes on the job and merely daydreams of empowerment and celebrity, while he is supposed to be helping his older brother Briar (Paul Rosenboom) and their overseer Vick (Paul ’Maxx’ Rinehart) clean and sort rubbish from the forest floor. Yet Bramble’s dreams of heroism are about to be realised, as a cube-shaped alien artefact, dislodged from a spacecraft that is under attack from human fighter jets, comes crashing into the trees, and uploads part of its technology directly into this bear of little brain. Now Bramble must reluctantly join forces with the cat-like ‘Ryotan’ alien Avi (Sara Secora), helping her to reassemble her fragmented vessel, to find her long-lost parents and to save the world from arms dealers Mr and Mrs Cruz (Rik Sinkeldam and Olivia Seaton-Hill), who will stop at nothing to get their hands on Avi’s super-advanced alien technology.
The expression ‘big in Japan’ is normally used semi-ironically of something that has failed to garner mainstream attention in America, but has found a niche following in Japan. The Boonie Bears are something different: big in China. For this animated mix-up of Hanna-Barbera’s The Yogi Bear Show (1961-2) and Ivor Wood’s The Wombles (1973-5), which has run for over 600 thirteen-minute episodes on Chinese television 2012 to 2022 and has spawned multiple spinoff features – of which Boonie Bears: Back To Earth is the fifth. While hardly a household name abroad, the series has nonetheless been translated into multiple languages and distributed to 82 countries – but its real impact has been in China, where it has proven the nation’s most popular children’s show. And big in China, whose population is just shy of one and a half billion, means big, big bucks. This film has already grossed $100million domestically.
That is no doubt in part because in Boonie Bears: Back To Earth, the small-screen world of these litter-clearing bears of the forest is expanded to a much bigger platform, taking in not just the nearby town of Pine Tree Mountain, but a massive military airship, the dark side of the moon, and a gigantic Laputa-like abandoned city hidden beneath the icy tundra of the South Pole. The results, though utterly derivative, are impressive in their scale. Avi is like a combination of Dreamworks’ wide-eyed, kick-ass Puss in Boots and Jeff Fowler’s barreling, blue-coloured Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), and she shares her backstory of planetary (and parental) exile with Superman. Meanwhile the cuboid ‘Core’ to which Bramble becomes connected is somewhere between the Lament Configuration from the Hellraiser franchise and the AllSpark from Transformers.
Once Bramble has improbably achieved ‘Core synchronisation’ and is able to control and reconfigure all Ryotan technology, his climactic confrontation with the colossal superweapon ‘Phasar’, both controlled by and controlling Mrs Cruz, affords the kind of grand Evangelion mecha battle that would normally be big (in every sense) in Japan. Bramble is living the dream – his dream – and finally breaking out of the confines of his usual woodland milieu to save both his friends and the world, and to be recognised for the deeper, higher qualities lurking beneath his appetitive drives and fecklessness.
Yet as the Boonie Bears come out of the woods, the tone of their antics becomes stretched to its limits. With its Disney-fied talking animals, its broad characterisation and its slapstick comedy, this always has been, and remains, a show for children – but although the alien urban biosphere in the final section is near empty, the battles that take place in it involve real, body-crushing peril both to the Cruzes’ many soldiers, and to Bramble’s forest friends. Perhaps the kids that grew up with this show have, well, grown up a bit – but it would not be too much of a leap from this Antarctic apocalypse to something like Alberto Vázquez’s fairytale-formatted bleakfest Unicorn Wars (2022) – not that it ever actually goes that far.
In the end, in keeping with its title, Lin’s film does come back down to earth and back to the boonies, returning these beloved characters to their normal environment, where they can once again recycle waste in idyllic sylvan surroundings, even if they do now occasionally hang out with a six-eared feline. The kids can rest easy, and the very young will no doubt love the bright CG eye candy – although adults watching alongside their children may find all these high jinks a bit too cutesy and cloying. Meanwhile the show’s constant preoccupation with ecological affairs remains present and correct.
strap: Huida Lin’s animated feature takes Chinese television’s most famous ursine environmentalists out of the woods to superheroic SF action adventure
© Anton Bitel