[Screen It]

(2002) (voice of Haley Joel Osment, Christopher Walken) (G)

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Drama: A young, talking bear runs away from his human home and hopes to reunite a legendary country band of singing and instrument playing bears.
Beary Barrington (voice of HALEY JOEL OSMENT) is a fourth-grader who lives with his mom and dad (MEAGEN FAY & STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY) and older brother Dex (ELI MARIENTHAL). All is well except that Beary, a real-life, talking bear, doesn't feel that he fits in, especially when his human brother constantly reminds him of just that.

Accordingly, Beary decides to run away from home to Country Bear Hall where his idols - The Country Bears - performed up until 1991 when they disbanded. Unfortunately, stern bank president Reed Thimple III (CHRISTOPHER WALKEN) is anxious to tear down the hall since the Bears owe $20,000 on it.

After Henry (voice of KEVIN MICHAEL RICHARDSON) informs the newly arrived Beary about all of this, the youngster comes up with an idea. If they can get the band to regroup, they can put on a concert, raise the necessary money and save the hall.

Henry is pessimistic about the notion, but Beary convinces him and soon the two of them and bus driver Roadie (M. C. GAINEY) are off to find the former members including Tennessee O'Neal (voice of TOBY HUSS), Zeb Zoober (voice of STEPHEN ROOT) and brothers Fred (voice of BRAD GARRETT) and Ted Bedderhead (voice of DIEDRICH BADER).

As they set out to find and convince the former members, human police officers Hamm (DARYL "CHILL" MITCHELL) and Cheets (DIEDRICH BADER) are trying to find Beary and soon believe he's been abducted by Henry and the others. With time running out before the demolition commences, Beary and the others travel across the countryside doing what they can to get the band back together and save the hall.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I've been there several times, and while I can understand and appreciate its appeal to kids, only a few of its attractions - such as Space Mountain, the now defunct Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the Hall of Presidents and Carousal of Progress for its kitschy retro appeal - do much for me.

I'd much rather spend my time at Epcot, MGM or any number of competitor's amusement parks rather than sit through the tortuous horrors of "It's a Small World" (wonderfully parodied in a "Simpsons" TV episode) or the lame, good ol' boy comedy of the Country Bears Jamboree.

All of which brings us to this week's family friendly release, "The Country Bears," which may be the first film ever based on an amusement park attraction rather than the other way around. I can certainly understand and appreciate the presence of kid-based, G-rated entertainment since such offerings are few and far between.

That said, I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to see this one. After all, the thought of talking and singing bears has a certain hokey ring to it and clearly could be disastrous from a preserve your brain cells standpoint.

Thankfully, the cinematic experience isn't as excruciating as seeing, hearing and being subjected to little wooden puppets from around the world creakily moving while chanting, "It's a world of hopes and a world of fears…" Then again, it's obviously not high art and clearly isn't as enjoyable or well-made as what Disney cousin Pixar regularly delivers.

As written by Mark Perez and directed by Peter Hastings (both making their feature film debuts), the film takes the animatronic bears out of Frontierland and deposits them in a plot that's best described as a watered-down combination of "Almost Famous" and "The Blues Brothers."

Like that first film, the story focuses on a youngster accompanying a band on the road and seeing and learning who they are and what post-stardom is really like. Probably to no one's surprise, this part of the film isn't quite as insightful as Cameron Crowe's work other than for some kid lessons that being different isn't such a bad thing.

The larger portion of the film lifts a great deal of material, in terms of underlying story, from the 1980 blues comedy that starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Like their lead counterparts, the ones here set out to get their old, country (rather than blues) band back together in order to raise money to save their old concert hall (rather than orphanage). Along the way, they pick up the various members and then perform in or witness various musical numbers, all while trying to avoid the police (but no neo-Nazis this time) who are after them.

Like that film and the various "Muppet" pictures, this one also features various cameos by well-known celebrities. The appearance of the likes of Elton John, Bonny Raitt, Don Henley and others won't mean squat to kids who won't recognize them, but they will make the offerings more palatable to adult viewers and some offer some briefly amusing material. The most entertaining is a classic musical duel between a fiddle playing bear and one stray cat - a.k.a. Brian Setzer - while Jennifer Paige gets in a good, full-scale musical number set in a diner.

Material involving the young bear's human family -- Stephen Tobolowsky ("Memento," "Groundhog Day") playing the wise father, Meagen Fay ("Magnolia," "Father's Day") embodying the mother who cooks when she's nervous, and Eli Marienthal ("American Pie," "The Iron Giant") as the jerk of a brother - and the two bumbling cops -- Daryl "Chill" Mitchell ("Lucky Numbers," "Galaxy Quest") and Diedrich Bader ("Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," "The Beverly Hillbillies") - isn't as successful.

That said, the former does provide kids with a pro-family message, while the latter is present for some slapstick laughs and shenanigans. I suppose the scene where the latter two are sucked into a car wash and given the full treatment - accompanied by the 70s classic "Car Wash," natch - is supposed to be the highlight. Yet, a little of that goes a long way and such material, not to mention the overall film, constantly teeters on being unbearable.

Christopher Walken ("Mouse Hunt," "The Deer Hunter") also appears in yet another maniacal comedy role, but isn't quite as amusing as I imagined and hoped he'd be. In fact, and despite understanding the need to preserve the genial nature and G-rating, the film's lack of any sort of edginess will prevent it from crossing over to general audiences (as the Pixar and other certain family-friendly films have done).

As far as the bears themselves, they don't look remotely realistic despite the work of The Henson Creature Shop and the actors inside the suits, but I'm guessing that's somewhat of the intention and/or point. Then again, perhaps it's simply a low budget side effect. Whatever the case, they're marginal as entertainment figures, and clearly aren't as imaginatively constructed as they should have been, or as other non-human characters have been in previous efforts.

The weakest one is the protagonist voiced by Haley Joel Osment ("Pay It Forward," "The Sixth Sense"). Although he shares the disenchanted family life angle with Stuart Little, he's a bland creation that does little for the film other than give the target audience a sympathetic focal point. The likes of Brad Garrett (TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond"), Toby Huss ("Human Nature," "Bedazzled"), Kevin Michael Richardson ("Lilo & Stitch," "Recess: School's Out"), Stephen Root ("O Brother Where Art Thou?" TV's "King of the Hill") and yes, Diedrich Bader again voice the various talking bears. Unfortunately, they're not given too many opportunities to say much that's worthwhile, funny or entertaining.

Simply put, the film and its bear-based shenanigans will probably entertain younger kids, and the innocuous, G-rated nature will please parents while the cameos and musical numbers may prevent snoozing or too much seat shifting among them. Certainly nothing overly original, clever or imaginative - beyond the hallucinatory aspect of no one batting an eye at seeing or interacting with talking and performing bears - the film delivers what's expected of it, but unfortunately that's not much. "The Country Bears" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 23, 2002 / Posted July 26, 2002

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