It's a bear getting the family together!
Loosely based on the Disneyland/DisneyWorld attraction, this Peter Hastings (Disney's One Saturday Morning) film plays like a Blues Brothers adventure for the Chuck E. Cheese generation. While the kids will love the comedy of these larger than life characters, a bevy of big-name cameos and the music of the legendary singer/songwriter John Hiatt will keep the adults entertained—at least for the first viewing or two.
Facts of the Case
The Country Bears were the biggest country/rock band of the 1970s (did somebody tell Lynyrd Skynyrd and CCR?) until fame, fortune, and family infighting caused their breakup in the early '90s. Now, with their former home—Country Bear Hall—in foreclosure and scheduled for demolition, it's up to one unique, young fan to reassemble his heroes for a fundraising concert. Can the band overcome years of resentment, over-inflated egos, bumbling police officers, and an evil bank executive in time to save the day?
Having over-mined the wealth of original Disney characters and concepts, the "House of Mouse" has recently moved onto its theme park attractions for new inspiration. Unveiled in 1971 as one of the Magic Kingdom's original attractions, the 15-minute Country Bear Jamboree was a mainstay at both domestic parks until Disneyland evicted the Bears in September 2001. Several variations of the show have rotated in and out of those hallowed Halls throughout the years. While the Bears can still be seen in Florida and Tokyo, their comedic stylings will forever live on in the hearts and minds of millions of fans.
Cue the music—"The Bear Band bears will play now, in the good ol' key of G. Zeke and Zed and Ted and Fred, and a bear named Tennessee." Enter writer Mark Perez (Frank McKlusky, C.I.). Taking legendary Disney Imagineer Marc Davis' original concept, Perez makes some tweaks, invents a backstory for these characters, and slides them almost effortlessly into John Landis and Dan Aykroyd's Blues Brothers formula. Setting several characters and elements aside, Henry is the band's former manager, Zed becomes Zeb, Zeke becomes the name of their tour bus, and Big Al is employed as Bear Hall's handyman, while Liver Lips McGraw, Teddi Beara, Wendell, the Sun Bonnets, little Oscar, and their resident talking heads Melvin, Max, and Buff are sadly nowhere to be found.
The film itself is surprisingly enjoyable. We begin by focusing on a stereotypical Disney family: Mom, Dad, and two sons—one angry pre-teen and one naïve little brother. The exception to the rule is that the younger son happens to be adopted—and, oh yeah, he's a bear…literally. When older brother Dex (Eli Marienthal, Stifler's brother from American Pie) clues brother Beary (voiced by Haley Joel Osment, A.I.) in on the fact that he's different from everyone else, Beary splits and sets off in search of his heroes—The Country Bears. Focus shift. While Mom and Dad call in the police (Diedrich Bader, Drew Carey Show and Daryl Mitchell, John Larroquette Show) to search for their runaway son, Country Bear Hall is facing demolition by malicious bank mogul Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can). Enter Beary, who inspires Bear Hall owner/operator Henry to reunite the band. Cue the road trip, police chase, and gaggle of music industry cameos including Queen Latifah, Brian Setzer, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Don Was, Wyclef Jean, Willie Nelson, and Elton John.
The actors voicing the four main bears clearly establish their relationships and do well making the cheesy jokes work—most notably Stephen Root (Newsradio) as the honey-aholic Zeb, and Diedrich Bader pulling double duty as the obnoxiously egocentric Ted. The supporting cast does equally as well, bringing Jim Henson's Creature Shop creations to life by treating them like real people. Christopher Walken is a riot as the insidious antagonist Thimple, milking this odd premise for all it's worth. Bader and Mitchell play well off each other as bungling police officers hot on the trail of the missing Beary. (The film wrapped prior to Mitchell's motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.) Acting aside, the real performance here is the music of John Hiatt. It grounds the film somehow, reviving that classic '70s rock feel prior to the influence of disco and Euro-pop. I only wonder if people would find Hiatt's new work more compelling if not sung by a bunch of techno-puppetteered bears.
The movie is presented in 1.33:1 full frame and the transfer itself is quite good. No muddying of the colorful characters or countryside and the blacks, most evident in the concert scenes, are lush. Disney does Hiatt's music justice by providing us with a Dolby 5.1 audio track, effectively using all five speakers for a film of this genre. The bonus features are bit on the redundant side, overdoing the This is Spinal Tap concept a little too much. We get the joke, guys. Watch the mockumentary "Out of the Woods" but skip the "Concert for America," as it's the same material repackaged and hosted by the oh-so-annoying, former MTV VJ Downtown Julie Brown. The "Mix Master" music video maker is a one time event for the kids, and the Krystal music video is more entertaining within the film than on it's own. Finally, the commentary track is played for laughs with Diedrich Bader and Stephen Root vamping in their Bear personas with a seemingly overwhelmed director Peter Hastings. Round it all out with a pickup truck full of studio trailers and there is nothing really here that adds a whole heck of a lot of value to the film.
The Country Bears is formulaic, but not forced. Goofy, but not annoying. Funny, but not laugh out loud hilarious. Clocking in at 88 minutes, it's a quick, enjoyable viewing for the whole family. A little pricey at $29.95, but worth renting for the kids.
This court releases director Peter Hastings and The Country Bears for taking a creative approach to the concept. However, Disney is cautioned against going to the well too often. With Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean already in production starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush, Disney execs should be wary of the amount of money being sunk into these projects. Remember 1997's Tower of Terror with Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst? 'Nuff said. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Mockumentary -- "The Country Bears: Out of the Woods"
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