The Country Bears (2002)

The Country Bear Jamboree has been a Disney theme park attraction for decades. Well, perhaps "attraction" is too strong a word for those corn pone robotic bears, but they're every bit as amusing as It's A Small World, and somewhat less fun than that spinning tea cup ride. But what Hollywood genius saw a cinematic void, a void that could only be filled by a bunch of singing, guitar-picking, thumbless animatronic bears in overalls?

Whoever he is, that genius is responsible for
The Country Bears. The movie to theme park metamorphosis is commonplace, but this is the first time I can recall the process working in reverse, and try as I might, I just can't see the point. Killer roller coaster movies, sure, but the Country Bear Jamboree? That's a head-scratcher. The Country Bears posits a universe in which humans and animatronic bears coexist peacefully, and it's kind of freaky and hard to accept outside the confines of Disneyland. (Don't get me wrong, I coexist pretty peacefully with the bears in my backyard, but I don't dress them up in Sears Roebuck clothes and sit them down at the dinner table.) Anyway, the movie is not weird enough to be really interesting. It starts off promisingly as a goofy mockumentary riff on The Last Waltz and This is Spinal Tap, only with music by John Hiatt performed by stage-diving animatronic bears and filtered through a Disney sensibility. But that only lasts about five minutes, and then the movie gets goofy in a not so good way.

Beary Barrington (voiced by
A.I. robo-boy Haley Joel Osment) is a bear cub, adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Barrington (Stephen Tobolowsky and Meagan Fay), his human parents. He's got a bratty human brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) who, in a fit of sibling rivalry, tells Beary he doesn't belong in the family. Beary, an obsessive fan of the defunct Country Bears, a once legendary country-rock outfit, runs away from home and heads straight for Country Bear Hall, which appears to be fairly close by, as pilgrimage sites go. With the exception of Dex, no one seems to take any notice of the fact that Beary is a bear in kid's clothing, or that he rides a bus, or that his head is three sizes too big and he looks like an escapee from a theme park attraction.

Beary finds that his beloved Country Bears have fallen on hard times, and Country Bear Hall is on the verge of bankruptcy. A mean old banker, Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken), is threatening to demolish the place. Beary persuades Country Bear leader Henry (or maybe it was one of the other bears -- I'll be honest, I couldn't really tell them apart) to reunite the band to play a benefit to save Country Bear Hall. Thus begins a bear odyssey, a musical road trip, a boy bear's journey of self-discovery -- in a bus driven by a man named Roadie (M.C. Gainey) and his faithful chicken. Roadie is the only human member of the Country Bears, and it isn't clear from the movie that bears can do anything other than perform menial tasks and play music, which may or may not be the same thing in their case. Meanwhile, the world's most incompetent police officers, Hamm (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) and Cheets (Diedrich Bader), thinking Beary has been kidnapped, are in hot pursuit of comic relief, which, sadly, eludes them entirely.

In addition to the fake-furry ursines,
The Country Bears features such notable Homo sapiens as Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley (appearing as themselves, and supplying the singing voices for duetting bears Trixie and Tennessee), Brian Setzer, Xzibit, Wyclef Jean, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Queen Latifah and Don Was. They all gamely play along with the joke, which essentially is that these completely unrealistic looking, huge-headed bears were once a highly influential group of popular musicians.

The Country Bears is pretty low octane amusement, although there are a few half-decent musical numbers (notably, Christopher Walken playing the 1812 Overture with his armpits). All in all, this is a movie that is not good. Shoehorned into the promising and could-have-been-funnier mockumentary is the standard Disney adoptee identity crisis, and a feel OK message about the meaning of family (a lesson all them good ol' bears has got to learn). The bears are kind of creepy in their robotic affectlessness, which renders the supposedly heartwarming tale rather less so. The Country Bears bravely swims upstream as it eschews modern, hip, realistic computer animation for a much cruder, ickier, hairier, low-tech kind (courtesy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop), which is to say it stays bafflingly true to its theme park forebears.