The Country Bears
review by Gregory Avery, 26 July 2002

In The Country Bears, five walking carpets with teeth are joined by a smaller, somewhat less threatening ambulatory ottoman to reunite the Country Bears Band and save Country Bear Hall from destruction.

Beary Barrington -- "Barry" spelled with an "ear," as in the "Old German" manner, according to his parents -- learns the truth from his spiteful older brother, Dex (Eli Marienthal), that, not only is Beary adopted, he was FOUND by his parents, in the woods (and Dex has the photos to prove it). An avid Country Bears fan, Beary (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) packs his backpack and leaves home for Country Bear Hall, where it doesn't matter whether you're "different" at all, only to discover that the place is on the verge of being repossessed, because of back mortgage payments ($20,000 worth), by heartless banker Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken -- yes, THAT Christopher Walken). So it's up to Beary to inspire the long-disbanded band members to get back together for a benefit concert, even if it means hauling the old tour bus out of storage from inside the barn and hitting the road, chickens and all. The running gag is that Dex Barrington is the only person in the movie who keeps pointing out that they're dealing with bears, here, and not people -- everyone else is blissfully unaware of the distinction -- while the Country Bears' music turns out to be greeted by the public with the same fond regard and warmth as that of the Eagles'. (In fact, Don Henley provides some of the musical vocals for the film, as does John Hiatt, who also wrote the original songs, and Bonnie Raitt.)

The filmmakers have really tried to put forth their best efforts, here -- things are kept light and bouncy; the film's refusal to resort to vulgar humor is refreshing; little messages are tucked in about being "different," finding one's "higher purpose" in life, the redemptive power of music, and the "notes in the rafters" ("musical" notes, that is); there's some rather good performances by, among others, Stephen Tobolowsky and Meagen Fay, as Dex and Beary's parents, and Diedrich Bader and Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, who play off each other with perfect comedic timing, as a pair of police officers; and lots of music and songs, including an impressive full-out production number featuring Jennifer Paige.

But there's just no getting around the fact that the Bears themselves are simply not very cuddly creatures to spend an hour and a half with. The animatronics used to bring them to life are highly elaborate, detailed, seamless, and even nuanced. The Bears are supposed to be down-home, comfy-cozy critters who chug down mugs of honey and scratch their furry tummies contentedly. From a distance, they also lumber along like real bears, which makes them no less threatening than real bears, either. In close-up, though, with their huge heads, eyes, and gaping mouths with teeth and fangs, they look positively terrifying, about as friendly as the creatures in a Godzilla film -- you keep expecting them to start scooping up people by the handful, like peanuts, and gobbling them down, while laying waste to downtown Tokyo. By the time the end credits started to roll, I was ready to bolt.

Then there's the un-bear-able waste of talent that marks Christopher Walken's performance.  Walken acts completely unfazed over appearing in this picture as a caricature of a Disney villain -- all buffoonery and no real bite.  Thimple's behavior is merely a series of over-the-top "evil" gestures that have long since been consigned to the "threadbare" category:  he drives around in a car with a miniature wrecking ball as a hood ornament, and, in one scene, he amuses himself by placing a scale model of Country Bear Hall onto his office desktop, then drops a weight from above upon it. "Oh, no! Country Bear Hall's been crunched!" he says facetiously, then scoops the bits into a wastepaper basket, puts another scale model on his desktop, and does it all over again. Thimple is less Snow White's Evil Queen than Snidely Whiplash.  Cruella De Vil would have used him as a doormat, covering him with enough high-heel marks to make the circuit between London and Hell Hall at least fifty times over.  It's another reason to bolt.

Directed by:
Peter Hastings

Starring:
Stephen Tobolowsky
Meagen Fay
Eli Marienthal
Diedrich Bader
Daryl "Chill" Mitchell
Christopher Walken

and the voices of:
Haley Joel Osment
James Gammon
Toby Huss
Stephen Root

Written by:
Mark Perez

Rated:
G - General Audiences.
All ages admitted.

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