The movie, released six months prior to DIC's Care Bears TV series had a considerable amount of star power attached to it: Carole King wrote and sung the opening theme, while John Sebastian and NRBQ contributed to the song score. Mickey Rooney and Georgia Engel starred as voices, along with the Canadian talents of Billie Mae Richards, Marla Lukofsky, Luba Goy and a young Cree Summer, among others. It also marked the first ever appearance of the Care Bear Cousins in the media franchise (as stated in its opening credits), and introduced a few new Bears to the original line-up of ten.
Amid its purpose as a feature-length commercial for the eponymous characters, and varying degrees of critical success, The Care Bears Movie grossed almost $23 million at the American box-office, outdrawing even Disney's The Black Cauldron (although this film was released much earlier than The Black Cauldron). It was Nelvana's highest-grossing film for another eight years. The profitable success of this project, along with their early work on children's television shows, saved Nelvana from closing down after the poor financial performance of their first film, 1983's Rock & Rule.
The movie starts with a brief introductory segment featuring Mr. and Mrs. Cherrywood, a middle-aged couple who look after many small children at an orphanage named after themselves. After the children ask him, Mr. Cherrywood sits them down to read a bedtime story, and this introduces the audience, along with a song by Carole King, to the Care Bears and their magical home in the clouds called Care-a-lot.
While looking down on the Earth for people to cheer up, the Care Bears notice two children who "don't care", Kim and Jason. The two kind siblings have decided to stop caring for the people around them ever since their parents died, and believe they need no one else but themselves. Two Care Bears, Friend Bear and Secret Bear, travel down to the surface to meet them. They begin to attempt an intervention by introducing themselves, but Kim and Jason do not take notice at first. Then Friend Bear tells them a virtue of friendship, and their ambitions: Kim, a bibliophile, is dreaming of becoming a nurse, and Jason wants to be a jet pilot. The children, however, are not interested in the Bears' idea of caring for others.
Meanwhile, at an amusement park, Tenderheart Bear (travelling on his Rainbow Roller) finds another child in need of help - a lonely boy who has never had a friend in his life: Nicholas, the young apprentice of a world-famous magician named "The Great Fetuccini". While helping to carry a chest for Fetuccini that contains some old antiques, he manages to find an old book with a diary-style lock on it.
Back at Care-a-lot, the Care Bears, inside the Hall of Hearts, are working on their new invention: the Rainbow Rescue Beam, a heart-shaped portal which can send any Bear to Earth and back to the sky instantly. While correcting problems from the invention's first test, Grams Bear calls Grumpy, Share and Birthday Bear over to look for her grandchildren, Baby Hugs and Baby Tugs. When those two come to try making square bubbles with the invention, their mischief brings forth Friend, Secret and the siblings to Care-a-lot instead, much to the Bears' surprise. Soon after the rest of the furry characters introduce a perplexed Kim and Jason, they give the two children a tour around their cloud-filled world. Thanks to them, the children have made brand-new friends without worry. Later, Wish Bear finds them some new parents from an orphanage, who want to have them adopted; but Kim and Jason feel like staying in Care-a-lot and helping the Bears.
At the same time, Nicholas is introduced to the voice of an evil spirit, his new "friend", from within the old book he has found. She tells him that, through magic, he can earn more friends by becoming a better magician than his master, and get even with the children all over town. In order to do that, he unlocks the book and unleashes the Spirit. Soon, its face shows up, and tells Nicholas to read some words in the book. His first spell makes Fetuccini fall into a deep sleep. Seeing the situation, Tenderheart convinces Nicholas that friends should not be made this way, but the Spirit does not take heed. She imprisons Tenderheart in a cage in order to get rid of him. However, the latter frees himself a few seconds later. With Nicholas' help, it soon lays waste to the amusement park and, after one of his shows, begins a quest to remove all caring from the world. Immediately, Tenderheart returns to Care-a-lot in the midst of a "Cloud Quake" caused by the Spirit, which destroys his home and causes the Caring Meter to drop two points.
When the quake is over, he informs Kim, Jason and the other Bears of Nicholas' troubles on Earth. Handing them the key from the Spirit's book, he brings them to the Rescue Beam and begins to send them, along with Friend and Secret, back to the park. However, an aftershock from the Cloud Quake causes the portal to malfunction, sending the four of them to a strange new land instead: the Forest of Feelings. There, they are introduced to Brave Heart Lion and Playful Heart Monkey, who are astounded that their human visitors are so different from them.
Because the Rainbow Rescue Beam did not work this time, Grumpy and Good Luck Bear stay in the Hall of Hearts to fix it, amid stormy weather. During the repair, they find Baby Hugs' lollipop to get it working again. Meanwhile, at a nearby river, the rest of the Care Bears have an idea: they begin to search for Kim, Jason, Friend and Secret with the help of a cloud ship, a big smiling star atop its mast. They too end up in the Forest, where they meet the rest of the Care Bear Cousins—Cozy Heart Penguin, Lotsa Heart Elephant, Swift Heart Rabbit and Bright Heart Raccoon among others.
While Kim, Jason, the Care Bears and the Cousins are in the Forest of Feelings, the Spirit begins to attack them in three different forms: At first, the Spirit sents out a spearfish that tries to stop the bears by creating a giant whirlpool, but the Care Bears ultimately escape the situation. Soon after, an evil tree attacks Kim, Jason and the cousins, but they are saved by Swift Heart Rabbit, a cousin with the ability to move at "super-speed". At last, a third entity is sent out to go after the children in the form of an awesome eagle. This time, the Care Bears overpower the opponent with the Care Bears Stare. Warned of its influence, the friends all journey back to the park (on the cloud ship) to try and free Nicholas of the Spirit, and re-imprison it in the magic book. Not long after they do, the boy is collecting all the ingredients for his ultimate spell: getting rid of the Care Bears, the Cousins, and the siblings. Still struggling with himself, he unleashes the last spell.
Soon after Nicholas comes outside with the book, the Bears and Cousins prepare to Stare and Call, with Good Luck and Grumpy later joining them via the Rescue Beam. A long battle ensues, and drains out all of their super powers, as they manage to break the Spirit's hold on Nicholas. The Care Bears Stare ultimately works, but the Spirit regains control over Nicholas after a few seconds. All of a sudden, Kim and Jason come along and offer the hand of friendship to Nicholas, vowing that they will make sure he is never left to feel lonely again, and he realises that their intentions are genuine. At this point, Nicholas sees the Spirit for what she really is and turns against her, and starts closing her face back into the book - but as he fights desperately to force the Spirit's book closed (with help from Tenderheart), the Spirit erases the key needed by Jason and Kim to lock the book up from Jason's hand. Secret Bear gives them a brand-new one out of his padlock, and Jason closes it for good, thus saving Nicholas, the park and the world. Nicholas thanks Kim, Jason, the bears and cousins for helping see through the Spirit and walks back towards Mr. Fetuccini's wagon with his arm around Kim and Jason. Some time after the battle is over, Fetuccini wakes from his long slumber and makes Nicholas his official partner; Tenderheart Bear inducts the Care Bear Cousins into the Care Bear Family; and Kim and Jason finally find new parents at one of Nicholas' shows.
After this, a short epilogue with the Cherrywoods is shown. Soon after the story is over, Mrs. Cherrywood reveals the name of her husband—Nicholas—and it is implied (though never explicitly stated) that she herself may be Kim (there is a similarity in their faces and hair cuts). Unknown to both of them and the children at the orphanage, Tenderheart Bear was listening all along from outside a window. When it is over, he rides back to Care-a-lot on his Cloud Car. Immediately after, the Care Bear Family waves its audience good-bye, below the words "The End" written in white on a shiny red heart.
Production of The Care Bears Movie took place at Toronto's Nelvana studio, at the start of a time which one of its founders, Michael Hirsh, refers to as its "dark years". Nelvana had just come out from the production of their first feature, 1983's Rock & Rule, which was produced using almost all of its resources (for $8 million) and failed at the box office. Soon after that film put them on the verge of closing down, Nelvana saved themselves by doing work on television shows like Inspector Gadget (from DiC Entertainment) and Mr. Microchip. During this time, they also began work on their next feature project, at around the same time they acquired the rights to the Care Bears characters. Brought in under budget, the first Care Bears Movie was made in eight months (from June 1984 to February 1985). The actual cost of the film varies by source; according to James B. Stewart's DisneyWar, it was made for $2 million, and Jerry Beck's Animated Movie Guide lists it at $4 million. That money was put up by American Greetings, the owners of the Care Bears franchise; General Mills, the toys' distributor; and LBS Communications, who went on to produce the film's 1986 follow-up, Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation, for Columbia Pictures.
The low-cost project started life as a short promo made for American Greetings. When they were pleased with the result, they asked Nelvana about the potential of a feature film stemming from it. After agreeing with AGC, most of the work (as they feared) would eventually end up, amid limited time and money, in the hands of Taiwan's Wang Film Productions and Cuckoo's Nest Studio, along with new studios Hanho Heung-Up and Mihahn in Korea. (These production values contrasted heavily with those of Rock & Rule, where all of the work was done in Canada over a five-year period.) The finished film's only scene from the promo involved Swift Heart Rabbit speeding off to save Kim, Jason and various Care Bear characters from the Spirit, incarnated as an evil tree.
The film's director, Arna Selznick, is the third of only four women ever to direct an animated feature (the others being Lotte Reiniger of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Animal Farm's Joy Batchelor, and Brenda Chapman from The Prince of Egypt). To this day, she is proud of her efforts for working with the crew of this film. "I know it was a huge marketing ploy to sell toys," she has said about its promotional strategy.
After its completion, the Samuel Goldwyn Company, then a newcomer in the independent market, agreed to release the film after it was rejected by all the major studios, who at the time did not see the financial potential in a movie aimed strictly for children. Comparing the title characters' appeal to Hollywood stars like Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, founder Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. remarked: "Having my [two] children, I know these bears are stars, too."
However, The Boston Globe's Michael Blowen had nothing to recommend the film: "[it] satisfies the primary obligation of a bedtime story—before it's half over the children will be fast asleep," he began his review. Moreover, some more were aware of its purpose as a feature-length commercial for Care Bears merchandise. As remarked the filmmaking publication Films and Filming: "The purpose of the film is presumably to sell more toys as it unashamedly pushes the message that without at least one Care Bear around life can be very lonely." Several films based on Hasbro's toy products and Hallmark's Rainbow Brite, to mention a few, would follow a similar marketing tactic some time after its debut.
Jack Chojnacki, president of Those Characters from Cleveland, and also one of its four executive producers, offered this vindication soon after it opened:
We consider a film one of the many products we license. When we started the whole Care Bears project we knew the importance of bears in the market but that there was a void. There were no specific bears. In the movie marketplace there was a void for good family-fare films.
The movie's theatrical success, along with subsequent home video sales numbering over five million copies, virtually saved a floundering Nelvana from going out of business. This eventually led to the Bears having their own television series, produced by DiC in the first season and by Nelvana for the rest of its run. Two sequels, Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation (1986) and The Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland (1987), also followed in its wake; neither of them made as much of a critical or commercial impact as its predecessor.
The film is one of the highest-grossing releases of all time in its native Canada, along with the teen comedy Porky's, which officially holds the record. It was Nelvana's most successful venture at the box office until their live-action thriller, Malice, took its place with a $46.4 million gross in late 1993. In addition, it is the highest-grossing release from either incarnation of its distributor, Samuel Goldwyn. (In March 2007, the revival of the company, operating through IDP Distribution, saw its biggest success so far in the historical drama Amazing Grace.)
Then, on September 5, 2000, MGM Home Entertainment re-released the film on video. The DVD premiered on August 6, 2002, and also contained the trailer as a bonus feature. In honour of the Care Bears' 25th anniversary, it was re-issued on March 20, 2007 with restored picture quality, and contained the franchise's second Atkinson Film-Arts special, The Care Bears Battle the Freeze Machine, as an extra. The DVD releases have been altered slightly from the film's original form. The Samuel Goldwyn Company logo with the "Care-A-Lot" opening fanfare has been replaced with the MGM logo, and the end credits are now on black instead of the original blue.