It may seem curious for the Disney machine to fashion a movie out of a recently-shuttered robotic theme park attraction, but at least the result is true to its animatronic roots: “The Country Bears” is as stiff, ponderous and charmless as a mechanical apparatus. And though it’s aimed at a kids’ audience, its plodding gait and lack of invention insure that it’s unlikely to appeal to many of them. Some adults, on the other hand, might enjoy it–those who enjoy country-western radio, at any rate. The picture is chock-full of musical numbers in that genre (and others as well), including one elaborate routine in a restaurant that includes a chorus of dancing customers that wouldn’t have been out of place in an old Technicolor MGM extravaganza. In an era when screen musicals are rare, that might be enough for some. But by the standards of the form, the movie is awfully tepid.
Tossing the actual time line to the winds, the picture apparently opens in the present, when the once-famous County Bears band has been retired for a decade. They nonetheless still have one huge fan: a talking cub named Beary, who’s been adopted by a cartoonish human family and idolizes the disbanded group. Feeling out of place because his older brother (Eli Marienthal) torments him, he strikes out on his own to go to Country Bear Hall, where, we’re told, a person can be himself; but when he gets there, he finds it about to be torn down by a smarmy, underhanded banker (Christopher Walken). He persuades the bear-curator to try to get the band back together for a benefit concert and thus save the place from the wrecking ball, and soon they’re off in the old tour bus to track down the four furry musicians who split up ten years ago. Along the way they’re pursued by two Keystone Kops (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell and Diedrich Bader) who are under the mistaken assumption that Beary’s been kidnapped. Without giving much away, we can say that after some shtick involving the current unhappy circumstances of the erstwhile quartet and a few obligatory chase sequences, a big musical number, in which precocious guitarist Beary participates, closes things on a cheery note.
“The Country Bears” is thus a road movie, but a really sedate, meandering one. The peculiar lethargy of it all is accentuated by the fact that the bears are extraordinarily slow-moving creatures, and there’s not much humor on hand since they’re all distinctly slow-witted, too. The two cops pursuing them are an even dumber duo, and their slapstick routine never catches fire. (A sequence in a carwash is downright embarrassing.) The stuff dealing with Beary’s homelife doesn’t offer any relief; his human “relatives” are depicted as frantic caricatures, with Stephen Tobolowsky pretty much off the scale as his “father,” and in any event the handling of the premise of a cute animal being part of an Ozzie-and-Harriet style brood suffers by comparison to the current, far superior “Stuart Little 2.” Of course, the plot all comes down to a message about the idea of family–both among the long-separated band members and between Beary and his adoptive clan–but in this case it all seems terribly prefabricated.
One might imagine that the picture would showcase an orgy of special effects, but you’d be wrong. The bears, who basically seem to be fellows walking around in furry suits, aren’t much more advanced technically than the 1986 Howard the Duck, and they’re just about as much fun. (It’s almost incredible that the Henson Creature Shop, usually a state-of-the-art outfit, was responsible for fashioning them.) Haley Joel Osmont provides the voice of Beary, and proves innocuous but unremarkable. (We all know that he looks more like a chipmunk, anyway.) The only shreds of amusement come from Walken, who adds a welcome dose of his customary weirdness to the proceedings; a dance routine from him might have helped, but to compensate for its absence there’s a revelation as to why the banker is so determined to destroy Bear Hall that’s perverse enough to be worth a chuckle. A variety of music stars–country performers and others like Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Krystal Marie Harris, Willie Nelson and Queen Latifah–show up (some in comic “interviews” during the closing crawls), and a few even do numbers, though most of those are strictly Bear stuff. The musical interludes are all decent enough, but they seem a little long in the tooth for a kiddie audience.
In sum, “The Country Bears” should never have been brought out of hibernation, at least not in this misbegotten format; the movie is as slow as molasses, and while that might be appropriate to ursine appetites, it will hardly appeal to human audiences.