BRIGSBY BEAR review by Mark Walters – Kyle Mooney is a man raised by a children’s TV mascot

BRIGSBY BEAR review by Mark Walters – Kyle Mooney is a man raised by a children’s TV mascot

Occasionally a movie comes along that feels extremely inspired and unique, a sort of strange voice that stands apart from the norm and really leaves an impression. BRIGSBY BEAR certainly has shades of other films like it, such as BE KIND REWIND, THE TRUMAN SHOW, and perhaps even LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. But the end result still feels specific and distinct, like the kind of movie you “discovered” and immediately want to talk to your friends about. It may not be immediately accessible to some, but those who get what it’s going for will almost certainly appreciate it.

James (Kyle Mooney) is young man in his 20s living in a sort of fallout shelter abode with his parents Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams). If any of them go outside, it’s only after they’ve put on a gas mask. Sometimes Ted will take James into a little observatory igloo to ponder life’s questions, where we can see outside creatures of the wild that are clearly fake and automated. James is living a lie, he just doesn’t know it. And as he spends each and every day locked in this underground abode, he passes time watching a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear”, which features a costumed bear with an animatronic-head going on magical adventures, and stopping occasionally to give life lessons or teach the viewer math problems… imagine BARNEY mixed with SESAME STREET, but really out there. For James, this is all he has to relate to, and he has literally hundreds of VHS tapes of it to watch over and over again. One night, when he’s supposed to be sleeping, James sneaks outside to think, and while there sees a bevy of cop cars rolling toward his home. In this moment it becomes clear what has happened – James was kidnapped at a young age, and the authorities have finally found him. And Brigsby Bear was nothing more than a fake children’s show created by Ted to help raise his kidnapped son. They arrest Ted and April and return James to his real parents Greg Pope (Matt Walsh) and Louise Pope (Michaela Watkins), and his sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), who attempt to reintroduce him to the real world. James is also consoled by a failed actor turned cop named Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) and psychiatrist named Emily (Claire Danes). But despite everyone’s strong efforts, the young man can’t seem to escape his obsession with Brigsby Bear, as it’s all he’s ever known.

When Aubrey is forced by her mom to take James to a party, he becomes buddies with Meredith (Alexa Demie) and Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), two of his sister’s more laid back friends. Spencer takes an interest in the Brigsby Bear stories James tells, and eventually borrows some tapes to see for himself what this young man is so fixated on. Eventually, James decides he’s going to “finish” Brigsby’s story by making a movie with Spencer’s help, even getting back some of the police-confiscated props to do it with. While this journey appears to be cathartic for him, Greg and Louise see it as unhealthy and strange, and it begins to drive a wedge between the family trying so hard to be whole again after all these years.

The concept of this film is actually quite fascinating, just the idea of someone who has never known the real world and only experienced what life is supposed to be by way of a children’s show with talking animals and fantastical creatures. Sure, we’ve all grown up watching shows like this, but imagine if those shows literally raised you and taught you about life. Then imagine after 20 or so years being thrust into the outside world and having to adapt. In many ways BRIGSBY BEAR is a story that easily could have gone very dark and disturbing, yet somehow it ends up being endearing and sweet. Kyle Mooney shines in the lead role showing us a childlike innocence that never gets annoying or redundant. As a character, James is a treat because he’s not unlike most awkward kids trying to adjust to real world situations, only he’s come from an existence almost no one could even fathom. His unique qualities and experiences would naturally make him a subject of interest with the more “normal” kids, and that youthful naivete would be a breath of fresh air in today’s social media-obsessed millennial crowd. There’s some story sections where the audience may have to accept his seemingly immediate adjustment to new and wonderful things, but for the purposes of keeping the story moving, it works. And we still get little moments that sell the transition, like James seeing a “real” dog for the first time and being a little freaked out by it. Mooney excels at playing awkward and somewhat aloof characters on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and brings that gift to James in very effective ways. This is a performance that in the hands of a more seasoned actor could have easily been oversold or felt less than genuine, but Mooney nails it with the utmost sincerity.

The supporting cast is excellent too, including some inspired choices. Comedic actors like Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins show their dramatic chops as James’ parents, trying desperately to connect with their long lost son and make him comfortable, and questioning what others are doing around him. Both actors are capable of hilarious portrayals, but here they keep it balanced and realistic, and it’s refreshing to see them in these roles. Greg Kinnear is also great as Detective Vogel, who becomes an unlikely friend to our hero in some unexpected ways. But one of the most interesting performances comes from Mark Hamill as Ted, the phony paternal figure to James for all those years, and the man who has created this whole Brigsby Bear world that (in all honesty) could have been something wonderful and legit had it not been used for what it was. Hamill conveys a sort of disconnected mentor mentality, a well-meaning man who just doesn’t quite know how to be a dad. One could definitely question why this fella must resort to fabricating a television world of make believe to occupy his kidnapped child’s days, rather than just trying to be a father… but the mystery of why he does what he does is what makes the character so intriguing. And Hamill really sells the idea of this being a guy who is anything but normal, though somehow has this charm and sincerity behind his eyes that you have to appreciate. Honestly, I could watch an entire movie about how Ted and April got to this point, but that kind of back story might be more fascinating left to the imagination. Sadly, Jane Adams (who was great on HBO’s HUNG) is given much less to do, but still sells her character well given her limited screen time. Claire Danes also feels a little wasted as the psychiatrist who never seems to get through to James, and ultimately ends up being no help. Even with those characters a tad underdeveloped, the story never suffers from it.

This movie was co-produced by The Lonely Island team of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (POPSTAR), and their off-beat comedic influence can be felt a bit in certain scenes without cheapening the overall effect. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 JUMP STREET, THE LEGO MOVIE) also produced the project, and it’s clear to see they were taken with the sometimes bizarre story and presentation – their TV series THE LAST MAN ON EARTH almost feels like it could exist in the same universe. The attention to detail is particularly impressive, as even the old VHS tape effects are done with such perfection that the Brigsby episodes almost look like a real forgotten kid series. Even the intro song for the faux show sounds incredibly authentic and natural. This is the feature directorial debut of Dave McCary (EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY), and will almost certainly open doors for him to do many more projects, likely with increasingly bigger budgets. But the low budget aspect of BRIGSBY BEAR Is part of its charm. Had this been a $100 million comedy with giant promotion behind it, I doubt it would have felt as sincere and unique. Sometimes little movies can have a big effect.

Of all the films I’ve seen this year, this is one I keep thinking about and wanting to discuss with others. I genuinely hope people get a chance to experience the production, and hopefully with friends so they too can chat about the end result. In an age where sequels and reboots are dominating the box office, BRIGSBY BEAR is a wildly satisfying cinematic surprise that truly deserves to be seen.

BRIGSBY BEAR is now playing everywhere

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.