David Hackl’s casting clusterfuck of a bear hunt comes completely undone with some appalling CGI in its closing stages. That’s not to say it’s an entirely terrible ride, just that too many of the creative decisions lose their way.

INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE features a star-studded company that includes Billy Bob Thornton (MONSTER’S BALL, CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIE TOWN), Scott Glenn (THE RIGHT STUFF, THE KEEP), James Marsden (X-MEN, SONIC THE HEDGEHOG) and Thomas Jane (DREAMCATCHER, THE MIST). All of whom are capable of holding a film together. In the same room? Things get a little weird… And I’m not overlooking co-stars Michaela McManus (ONE TREE HILL, LAW & ORDER) and Piper Perabo (COYOTE UGLY, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE) in this early roundup. Rather, the film spends so much time making sure the men can waggle their acting dicks (you know, characters with back stories and motivation), all the women get to do is fall down hills, fall down down holes, or just fall over before needing to be rescued (again).

The film opens with some horrific poaching deep in grizzly country and, for one reason or another, a pair of estranged brothers (Marsden and Jane) pull on their backpacks and head into the woods to sort things out. As with the famous Sondheim musical, it’s the people we meet that add texture to the journey… Firstly, Piper Perabo gets to channel her inner Marlee Matlin (who knew she had one…) to portray a deaf environmentalist. Now, there’s no reason on earth the environmentalist in this movie shouldn’t be deaf, but her character appears to have been struck by the kind of deafness that means you don’t just communicate, you COMMUNICATE, over-earnestly emphasising every sign with pleading eyes like Donald Trump just discovering ALL CAPS. It makes you wonder what all the D/deaf actors were doing when this role was being cast… Hopefully holding onto their dignity (if not their pay cheques…).*

As if this wasn’t enough, you’ve not seen anything until you’ve seen Billy Bob Thornton with a prosthetic ear hanging off fresh from a recent bear mauling (looking all T-1000 headsplit weird) but still vengefully facing down his foe. Of course he misses… As does every other experienced bear hunter/trained police officer in this Second Amendment embarrassment. The other unsettling thing about Billy Bob – apart from his teeth – is that his portrayal of the ultimate bear hunter seems out of place. Whilst every other male actor is busy shredding the scenery (Jane’s macho mumble is a hoot!), Thornton conveys a steely, otherworldly ambivalence, like he was cast as the predator in an unwanted sequel to MICHAEL (2011), but accidentally wondered onto the wrong set. The end credits make it clear that Billy is such a star he got his own makeup artist and security personnel for the shoot…

But there’s one even bigger star in this movie than Billy Bob… with even bigger teeth… BartTM the bear… Now, I didn’t know anything about BartTM before this thing kicked off, which means it was hard to take the threat seriously after his opening namecheck in the title credits (cute name, cute bear, right?). Now, I know bears are incredibly dangerous IRL, but that often doesn’t come across when trained ones are shot for the movies, when surely the whole point of bringing a bear onto a film set is that it doesn’t actually kill anyone… So they tend to lumber along like so many XXL clubbers at an all you can eat buffet.

BartTM is a magnificent enough lump of a beast to make an initial impact. And if he’d been left in the shadows, this could have been a film full of menace. But the film overreaches considerably and tries to digitally manipulate their ursine star. This ends up with too many zooms into his gaping maw, some oddly unconvincing digital blood and one laugh-out-loud scene featuring an angry BartTM roaring in Perabo’s face (the woefully bad CGI compositing suggests otherwise…). The bear is then replaced with a fluid digital stand-in for some even more aggressive assaults. The rushed finale then gives us three man vs real bear wrestling matches in quick succession. This may well be BartTM’s party piece but given that all his fellow combatants look exactly like well-padded stunt doubles wearing wigs, the sleight of hand lacks, well, any sleight of hand.

And it’s in this finale where INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE ultimately unravels… I’m going to allow you to discover the climactic ring of fire on your own, but the take home message is that this film contains some of the most gob-smackingly appalling CGI blunders you’re likely to see in such a star-studded vehicle. What makes this surprising is that the visual FX are from a decent company. Base FX is home of BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA 2 for sure, but has also made creature contributions to the STAR WARS, STAR TREK, and TRANSFORMERS franchises. Their latest production is THE MANDALORIAN Season 2. So quite how this went so horrifyingly wrong with so many talented people working on it defies the imagination.

In the end, the only ‘talent’ to come out of this maze well is BartTM and all his associated entourage of trainers and handlers (let’s not pretend the bear has any agency in this, even if he does appear to have an actual agent…). Trainer Doug Seus and co appear so many times in the end credits it’s hard not to feel their lawyers got the upper hand in the creative process, leaving the production precious few resources for anything else.

*Perabo’s attempt at sign language reminds me fondly of THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971)… But more of that glorious oddity in another review.

IN BRIEF: A casting clusterfuck of a bear hunt that comes completely undone with some appalling CGI in its closing stages.

STRAPLINE: “Hunt Or Be Hunted.”

Streamed late at night from Amazon Prime Video, 16 January 2021.

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