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The Country Bears

(2002) * 1/2 G
88 min. Buena Vista. Director: Peter Hastings. Cast: Misty Rosas, Tom Fisher, Kaefan Shaw, Tony Sabin Prince, Jody St Michael.

Finally, someone's taken Haley Joel Osment down a peg. Let's see him explain the animatronic mammalian, psychedelic, pizza-with-anchovies nightmare that is The Country Bears to Inside the Actor's Studio's James Lipton! Actually, I have no beef with the little dickens, especially since The Country Bears is hardly his fault (as the voice of the "leading bear," he never actually appears on screen). But to follow up A.I.: Artificial Intelligence with this? Haley, you got some 'splainin' to do!

Like any other mediocre kid's film of late, The Country Bears seems to beg audiences to stay home and rent one of its superior forebears. On a kiddie level, the film aspires to be The Muppet Movie, but the animatronic work by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, though intermittently impressive, mostly reminds us of Henson's tragic demise (I feel for the actors under these heavy, furry, talking-bear helmets). On an adult level, The Country Bears apes The Blues Brothers or--perhaps more accurately--the tepid Blues Brothers 2000.

You see, The Country Bears--and yes, this movie is based on the amusement park "Jamboree"--were a hugely popular country act in the universe of the film, and when Country Bear Hall is threatened by Christopher Walken's wrecking ball, it's time to (everybody now) "get the band back together!" Leading the charge to reunite the seedy bunch is young Beary (voiced by Osment), who runs away from home to discover his roots after a lifetime of heckling from human older brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) gives way to the bombshell that the cub is adopted (cough...Stuart Little!). You could probably sketch out the rest on an AMC Theatres napkin, but you might need it to mop up your drool.

Any appeal this disposable Disney product carries is strictly novelty value for fans of "Walt Disney Imagineering" (raise your hand...I know you're out there) or the various music artists dragged through the Mississippi mud (including Brian Setzer, duet partners Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley, Queen Latifah, Elton John, and primarily, John Hiatt, who wrote most of the original music). A couple of full-on music video interludes shamelessly promote people presumably in heavy rotation on Disney Radio. A car wash scene doles out the punishment typically reserved for bad guys to two well-intentioned police officers. Ghoulish celebrity watchers will want to note this as the last role Darryl "Chill" Mitchell--as one of the cops--filmed before a car accident tragically paralyzed him (thankfully, Mitchell continues to act).

The Behind the Music-styled backstory, though over kids' heads, may strike some adults as being in questionable taste for a family film (socially and aesthetically). The filmmakers reference honey as an abused addictive substance, marriage counseling as the job of a distraught jilted-lover Bear, and Jimi Hendrix as a one-time opening act at Country Bear Hall (horrors!).

When The Country Bears succeeds, it does so in spite of director Peter Hastings, whose incompetent helming bears the responsibility for frenetic editing and visual nonsense like a sped-up car chase (presumably, such choices were made in post-production to spackle Hastings's on-set errors). But occasionally, a good actor sparks for a few seconds, and all is well (Alex Rocco's mugging in an office supply store comes to mind). Along with the cameos aplenty, there is the Walken factor. One shouldn't underestimate the perverse entertainment value of hearing Walken--at one point, sporting a tranq-dart bandolier--utter lines like "Do you like the sound of crunching wood? I do," and "This is not over! BEARS!"

But where the picture lives or dies--with the animatronic bears--it sinks into the swamp. The bears are essentially interchangable--they have two speeds: slow and slower--their hijinks bore, and their music is, to my ear, pretty hideous. If you must satisfy your curiosity, wait a few seconds for the waves to reach eternal Disney Channel oblivion. And while you're doing that, gird your loins for Pirates of the Carribean and The Haunted House, both of which are in the pipeline. Hello, Roto-Rooter?

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