Like a medley sung by Donny and Marie, Disney's latest is only a little bit country. There's down-home spirit somewhere at the heart of "The Country Bears" -- an animatronic, musical heart-tugger based on the attractions division's "Country Bear Jamboree" and "Country Bear Playhouse" properties -- but it's smothered by rampant and clumsy concessions to citified commercialism.
Almost nothing about this movie works as it should, starting with its furry hero, 11-year-old Beary Barrington. A cub who's been taken into a human family for no sufficiently explained reason, Beary (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) learns of his adoptee status from his bratty older brother, in a bathetic scene that's intended to stimulate the secretions of our aw-shucks gland. But in looking closely at Beary's Henson-engineered face, we can't help but perceive feral traces of Lon Chaney's long-ago turn as the Wolf Man. Our feelings of sympathy for Beary's plight are undercut by the creeping suspicion that he might rip off our arms given half a chance.
The contradictions mount as Beary runs away from home to start a new life among the Country Bears, a seminal group of ursine musicians who sing like John Hiatt but look like Jerry Garcia. Once a mighty force in the music industry, the Bears have since broken up to pursue individual careers of varying success. Beary makes it his mission to reunite the players in time to save their home/landmark, Country Bear Hall, from demolition by an evil tycoon (Christopher Walken, who will now officially do anything.) A cross-country trip to locate and re-enlist all the members of the band lays the groundwork for plenty of musical numbers and celebrity cameos.
In other words, it's "The Blues Brothers" for kids, except that the Belushi/Aykroyd vehicle gave face time to actual blues artists. In contrast, Beary and company come across the likes of Brian Setzer, Queen Latifah and Elton John. What they have to do with country is anyone's guess. Willie Nelson does show up, but only for a talking-head interview in which Mr. Honeysuckle Rose recounts the Bears' cultural impact. Sadly, he does not address their tax-paying habits.
Such P.R. window dressing comes at the expense of the story, which either glosses over or omits outright some of the most basic plot points. (The "extra" footage in the closing credits hints at a last-minute editing-room hack job.) Instead, the movie indulges in music-video flash and ad-nauseam repetition of the stalest kiddie-movie bromides: Whoever really loves you is your family, it's O.K. to be different, etc. It must be hard for a child to accept the value of iconoclasm when it's being preached by a movie that's so obviously afraid to be itself.
Disney has big-screen adaptations of its "Haunted Mansion" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" attractions on the way, but the suits are already warning that neither will be as "faithful" to its source as "The Country Bears." This is faithful? It's hardly even Faith Hill -- at least, just bearly.
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