Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 25, 2002
The Country Bears
Voices by Haley Joel Osment, Diedrich Bader, and Kevin Michael Richardson. Directed by Peter Hastings. Written by Mark Perez. Rated G.
Almost Furry

The Country Bears is a modestly successful venture into kid rock.


Here’s a premise that’s as unpromising as that of any Hollywood movie this summer: a film based on The Country Bear Jamboree, a Disney World attraction of animatronic bears playing in a band. It seems like enough to put movie fans into a sleep resembling hibernation. Yet The Country Bears, while definitely no masterpiece, manages to succeed on its own very modest terms.

The movie starts with Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment), who’s being raised as an 11-year-old kid by an average human family even though he’s a bear — his older brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) is the only person in the movie who seems willing to acknowledge the fact. Beary is obsessed with The Country Bears, a long-running, chart-topping musical group that broke up a decade ago. When Beary learns that he’s adopted, he heads to a backroad venue called Country Bear Hall to see the place where his heroes once rocked. The hall has become a museum, and when he gets there, he learns that it’s soon to be torn down. Determined to save the place, Beary persuades the group’s former manager (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) to track down the band’s scattered members for a reunion concert.

The movie treats its plot perfunctorily, because its real reason for being is its musical numbers. John Hiatt wrote the songs and provides the singing voice for the group’s lead singer. (In a nice musical joke, he also sings the Tom Jones chestnut “It’s Not Unusual” at a wedding.) The musical cameos are everywhere — when the bears visit a bar, the bartender is Queen Latifah, while Brian Setzer is fronting the house band. Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt can be heard as the singing voices of two bears duetting in a piano bar, and can be seen in the same scene as two bar patrons listening to them. (Henley says, “They’re better than the Eagles.”) Teen pop singer Krystal pops in for a number, as if to show the kids in the audience that while this movie’s musical sensibility may be old-fashioned, it isn’t stuck in the past. As a ploy, it works pretty well because Krystal’s a fairly new face. Casting, say, Jessica Simpson in the part would’ve been a grievous error.

Peter Hastings directs the film, and his handling of the numbers is impressive for a first-time director whose background is in children’s animated television. The numbers could’ve been more creative visually, but it’s good that they’re there, because the material in between doesn’t hold up too well. The animatronic bears are uninteresting screen presences, except for the slow-talking museum groundskeeper (voiced by James Gammon) who’s very protective of the grass around the hall. There are a few nifty throwaway gags like a re-creation of a cheapo 1970s sci-fi cartoon starring the Country Bears, but there’s too much about a couple of inept cops (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell and Diedrich Bader) chasing after Beary in the mistaken belief that he’s been kidnapped. The movie’s well-scrubbed quality is faintly annoying, too. Still, The Country Bears is the only movie out there making a concerted effort to introduce traditional roots rock music to the Radio Disney crowd. That must count for something.

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