The Country Bears

The Country Bears

2002, G, 88 min. Directed by Peter Hastings. Starring Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Brad Garrett, James Gammon, Candy Ford, Haley Joel Osment, Alex Rocco, M.C. Gainey, Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, Stephen Tobolowsky, Meagan Fay, Diedrich Bader, Christopher Walken.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 2, 2002

To paraphrase George A. Romero, when there's no more room in hell, the Country Bears will walk the earth, alternately savaging their prey and crooning limp, country-fried retreads of popular hayseed standards. Frankly I don't know which is worse, having to sit through this abysmal film version of a Walt Disney World “attraction” so acutely unnerving that it makes the mutant critter in John Frankenheimer's Prophecy seem positively cuddly by comparison, or having to do it without benefit of a morphine drip. Granted, The Country Bears tends to act as its own sedative, by turns numbingly dull-witted and disquietingly creepy. It's as if David Lynch had taken a stab at the Disney franchise while on a Zoloft bender at Dollywood. The film's happier-than-thou tone is augmented by the fact that -- in the inexplicable logic of the movie -- giant, talking bears with the intellect of Jethro Clampett wander through our world without inspiring fear, awe, or the urge to alert the programmers at Animal Planet (Bears Say the Darnedest Things, indeed). In this meta-reality, they're just plain folks, albeit ones that could doubtless rip your arm from its socket and pick their molars with your tibia. This is, however, a purely Disneyfied construct, and so nothing even remotely like that occurs (the possibilities remain intriguing nonetheless). In lieu of bloodthirsty ursine antics, we get Beary (voiced by a listless-sounding Osment), a young fur-bearer adopted by the human Barrington clan, who feels oddly out of place in a household populated by naked apes with strictly low-key incisors, so he hits the road, Jack, in search of others of his kind. Being an, No Depression kind of kid, he gravitates toward his favorite musical group, the now more-or-less-defunct Country Bears. As the film's Behind the Music-type prologue reveals, Tennessee, Zeb, Henry, Trixie, and Big Al's popularity has waned to the point where their home and performance space – Country Bear Hall, natch – is about to be demolished by scheming financial baron Reed Thimple (Walken, who manages to be the only player in the film more distressing than those talking bears). Desperate to save these tarnished legends, Beary mounts a series of his own schemes to bring the group back into the country fold to mount one final benefit show in the hope of saving their old stomping ground. The animatronic bear effects are well done (by Jim Henson's Creature Shop) but there's still something off-putting about these furry, toothy growlers; the film plays like a Twilight Zone for the preteen set, and when Walken gets around to tooting out musical numbers via his armpits, well, you just know Rod Serling's got to be lurking around there somewhere. Barely enlivened by a parade of celebrity cameos (Elton John, Bonny Raitt, Queen Latifah, John Hiatt) that probably won't impress the film's tiny-tot target demographics (the same goes for the film's genuinely trippy resemblance to, of all things, Cameron Crowe's recent Almost Famous), this is either one of the best “head” films of all time or one of the worst examples of Disneyfied opportunism to come down the pike in years. I'd like to think it was the former, really I would, but somehow I suspect otherwise.

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The Country Bears, Peter Hastings, Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Brad Garrett, James Gammon, Candy Ford, Haley Joel Osment, Alex Rocco, M.C. Gainey, Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, Stephen Tobolowsky, Meagan Fay, Diedrich Bader, Christopher Walken

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