Trouble Bruin: Disney's Sorry Band of 'Bears'

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 26, 2002

There's a juke joint legend that Bonnie Raitt, Brian Setzer, John Hiatt and Willie Nelson met the Devil at a crossroads on the Mississippi Delta one midnight, selling their respective souls for an undisclosed sum of money.

Once the deal was sealed, the parties went their separate ways. But when the musicians turned around, they saw that Satan was wearing a pair of enormous white gloves, red suspenders and giant mouse ears.

Okay, not exactly. But you can't blame a fan for wanting to confect a lyrical rationale for why these and other great performers would agree to take part in as craven an exercise as "The Country Bears." A spinoff of the Disney World animatronic attraction Country Bear Jamboree, "The Country Bears" is Disney's first attempt to cash in on a tie-in between its theme parks and its film division. Which means there's plenty of time to find an excuse not to take the kids to Pirates of the Caribbean. "The Country Bears" is so awkward, so leaden, so virtually laugh-free that it's guaranteed to bring down the Happy Meals it's being marketed with.

Things start promisingly enough. In an introductory sequence similar to VH1's scrumptious guilty pleasure "Behind the Music," we see the rise and fall of the Country Bears, a sort of ursine cross between the Flatlanders and the Grateful Dead. (As it happens, most of the band members do bear an unsettling resemblance to Jerry Garcia.) In a funny montage we see the band's debut recording ("The Album What That's Our First") and a tabloid headline referring to fiddle player Zeb Zoober's "Sticky Honey Problem."

Since their breakup, the Country Bears have become the stuff of legend, and their most faithful cult member is a young cub named Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment). Beary is obsessed with the Country Bears and sets out to find happiness in Country Bear Hall, where the Bears played their final show (guess the Cow Palace was booked). When he arrives, the cub sees that the auditorium is soon to be demolished by the evil Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken), so Beary vows to get the Bears back together for a show to save the Hall.

With its cool cameo appearances and hip soundtrack, "The Country Bears" initially appears to be the kind of movie people who subscribe to the alt-country magazine No Depression can enjoy with their kids. But appearances are deceiving. Even choice cuts from the Byrds, Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan can't disguise the fact that you're watching a bunch of big, overstuffed bears lumbering around spouting bad dialogue. (The bear puppets, by the way, are engineered by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, which seems to have looked to "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" for inspiration.) Although "The Country Bears" is meant to be a satire, it falls somewhere in the mushy middle ground between parody and sentimentality. On and on it goes, from protracted chase scenes to shots of Walken becoming increasingly agitated to the final, much-postponed concert, with lots of close-ups of the film's furry and, well, a bit mangy, title characters. If you're looking for some good family interspecies entertainment, take the little ones to see "Stuart Little 2" again; in the meantime, you might want to crawl into your cave and sleep through this one.

The Country Bears (88 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company