Some of the same themes Michael Ritchie explored in Smile (winning and losing, adults imposing their values on children, the processes whereby youth come to terms with life) are put forward in The Bad News Bears only more obliquely. The Little League has been criticized for thrusting youngsters into stressful competitive situations. It also has come under attack in the courtrooms with girls trying to break down its rigid rules. Although scriptwriter Bill Lancaster and director Ritchie could have centered the movie around those issues, they chose instead to go for entertainment values.
Walter Matthau is featured as Coach Morris Buttermaker, an ex-minor league pitcher who cleans swimming pools for a living and manages the Bears, a motley crew of Little League baseball players, on the side. They are the kind of team no one else would touch with a ten-foot pole outfielders who can't catch, a pitcher who is severely disabled by near-sightedness, infielders who can't handle ground balls, and practically no one who can hit. They lose their opener 26-0, forfeiting the game in the first inning.
Buttermaker, who usually tries to make the best of a bad situation by beer drinking, this time calls upon the tomboy daughter of an old lover to save the squad from a season of total embarrassment. For good measure, a juvenile delinquent is also brought on board. Thanks to her pitching and the punk's strong hitting and fielding, the Bears reverse their luck and wind up in the championship game.
The Bad News Bears offers plenty of chuckles as it presents the anxiety, bad-mouthing, vulnerability, and spunk of a group of losers who like to play ball but lack the talent. The casting as in all Ritchie films is topnotch with Matthau as the coach giving him just the right mixture of cynicism and jaunty pride, Tatum O'Neal as the spitball pitcher, Jackie Earle Haley as the skilled delinquent, Joyce Van Patten as a crusty Little League official, and Vic Morrow as a victory obsessed coach. The bumbling Bears are all heart a delightful menagerie of misfits. Cinematography by John Alonzo and music by Jerry Fielding (including a clever use of Bizet's Carmen) adds to the enjoyment in this comedy.