Rated G - Running Time: 1:28 - Released 7/26/02

I must admit, I expected Disney's The Country Bears, a movie about a bear-boy who leaves home to discover his destiny, to be nothing more than a transparent marketing ploy to sell more tickets to Walt Disney World's elderly "Country Bear Jamboree" attraction. And it is, of course—but with a lot more entertainment value than I expected. Written by Mark Perez and directed by Peter Hastings of Animaniacs fame, the movie is a surprisingly inconsistent mix of questionable writing, great music, cheesy puppetry, and truly nice cinematography. And it boasts an astonishing number of music celebrity cameos. It's people in bear suits, for crap's sake; how did they get all these high-profile recording artists involved?

Feeling that he doesn't belong, primarily because his human brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) keeps telling him, Beary Barrington (voice of Haley Joel Osment), a bear living in a human world, decides to leave home in search of his "higher purpose." While his parents think he's been kidnapped and notify the authorities (two clumsy cops played by Diedrich Bader and Daryl Mitchell), he actually goes on a pilgrimage to Country Bear Hall, the dilapidated former home of the Country Bears singing group (whose musical style truthfully sounds more like southern rock). Despite the fact that they were widely loved by numerous human fans, the Bears parted ways in 1991 due to creative differences and left the hall in the care of two fuzzy associates: Big Al the maintenance man (James Gammon) and Henry, the group's former manager (Kevin Michael Richardson). But since Henry has been unable to keep up the payments, the place is about to be demolished by its owner, a hearltess banker named Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken), who harbors a long-standing secret grudge against the Bears. It is only when Beary arrives that the seemingly preposterous idea of getting the band back together is suggested. The balance of the film is a sort of bear version of The Blues Brothers, with Beary, Henry, and a human drummer/driver named "Roadie" (M.C. Gainey) traveling all over the country in the bears' huge tour bus, reassembling the group for a benefit concert to save Country Bear Hall.

Besides the bear characters that make up the group, which include harmonica player Fred Bedderhead (voice of Brad Garrett), fiddler Zeb Zoober (Stephen Root), one-string guitarist/vocalist Tennessee O'Neal (Toby Huss, sung by former Eagle Don Henley), his ex-girlfriend, vocalist Trixie St. Claire (Candy Ford, sung by Bonnie Raitt), and Fred's estranged brother, guitarist/vocalist Ted Bedderhead (Brian La Rosa, sung by John Hiatt), this film also features numerous cameo appearances, some of which involve incredibly enjoyable large-scale musical numbers. Watch for artists such as Krystal, Jennifer Paige, Henley and Raitt (who not only sing a duet as their bear characters but also appear as themselves), Elton John, Queen Latifah, Willie Nelson, Brian Setzer (of the Stray Cats), Don's like an all-star salute to Disney's cheesy commercialism. The story lumbers along as lamely as if it's been shot with a tranquilizer dart, cutting back and forth between the police officers inept attempt to find Beary, Walken's weird sense of comic style as the obsessed banker, and lots of manufactured conflict and sappy emotionalism. It culminates in the obligatory triumphant concert at CBH, featuring a slow ballad which, while very pretty, is surprisingly anticlimactic. Even if you're not a fan of Disney's animatronic bear show, you might enjoy the scenery (lensed by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen) and star-studded cast list of this curiously unworthy little picture. ***

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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