The Country Bears

2002, Movie, G, 97 mins


An unintentionally surreal kid's picture (based on Disney's now-defunct, animatronic Country Bear Jamboree theme-park attraction) in which actors in bad bear suits enact a sort of inter-species parody of a VH1 Behind the Music episode. And if that sounds unpromising, wait till you actually see it. The story, if that's the word, may (and should) remind you of THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), which isn't exactly screenwriting at its most sophisticated. Evil bank guy Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken, in regulation unhinged mode) is about to foreclose on Country Bear Hall, home to the retired members of a best-selling pop group that suggests the ursine equivalent of an unholy liaison between the Charlie Daniels Band and the Eagles. Meanwhile, young Beary Barrington (voice of Haley Joel Osment), notices that the other members of his loving family are oddly hairless and lacking in damp black noses, claws and fuzzy ears. Could he be adopted? That this insight makes young Beary only slightly brighter than Steve Martin in THE JERK may or may not have been what screenwriter Mark Perez intended, but in any event, the restless Beary solves his 'what's a poor cub to do?' dilemma by running away from home. Fortunately, he meets up with the benevolent Bears, and helps them get the band back together and stage a big climactic benefit concert that will generate enough revenue to pay off the mortgage on Bear Hall. The rest of the movie is essentially one long (very long) road trip, with various celebrities (Elton John, Willie Nelson) appearing in cameos along the way. The most jaw-dropping moment, however, is a sequence featuring rap diva Queen Latifah as the owner of a redneck honky-tonk joint, where the Bears jump on stage with the house band and sing a big ol' ballad. The sense of disjunction produced by hearing the voices of Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley coming out of their fake snouts while Raitt and Henley themselves can be glimpsed applauding wildly in the audience is dizzying. On the plus side, the estimable John Hiatt's original songs go down fairly easily, and (in case you haven't guessed), the message is a quintessential post-LITTLE MERMAID Disney chestnut that yes kids, it's okay to be different. For adults, however, this just might be a sneakily subversive anti-drug screed; fry your brain too thoroughly, the filmmakers seem to suggest, and your reality could come to resemble what's here on screen. leave a comment --Steve Simels

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