Eric D. Snider

The Country Bears

"The Country Bears" is bearable. Barely.

This is actually something of a ringing endorsement, considering how awful the movie sounds based on its premise. There is a reason the genre of "movies based on theme park attractions" has gone untapped: It's a bad idea. Disney World's Country Bear Jamboree is just a show with animatronic puppets singing country songs -- not a story to be found. And movies need stories.

But just because something is a bad idea doesn't mean the Walt Disney Co. won't do it; indeed, it is the bad ideas the Mouse House pursues most vigorously.

Which is why it's actually a pretty favorable thing to say "The Country Bears" is not especially irritating, not unusually dull, and not outrageously stupid. It is all of those things, but not especially, unusually or outrageously so.

The story is that 11 years ago, the legendary Country Bears Band broke up and went their separate ways. You'd think the band was famous because it consisted of bears who could talk and sing and play instruments, but it was actually just because they were a good country band. No one noticed or cared that they were bears.

In keeping with that theme, we meet Beary Barrington (voice of Haley Joel Osment), a 10-year-old bear who has been adopted by a human family. He loves the defunct Country Bears Band, though he can't quite place his finger on why he feels such an affinity with them. His adoptive parents insist he was not adopted, but his bratty brother tells him the truth.

So Beary heads out to Country Bear Hall to find solace, and he learns his Mecca is about to be foreclosed upon and torn down by an evil banker named Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken), who has an unusually strong anti-bear vendetta. Beary's solution is to convince the band to reunite for a fundraising concert to save Country Bear Hall. In other words, this is "The Blues Brothers," but with bears.

There are a few sly jokes and witty references, and I enjoyed the occasional non-references to Beary's bearhood. (When a cop investigating his disappearance sees his picture, he says, "He looks like a ... fourth grader.")

But then there is the padding. Oh my goodness, is there the padding! This 88-minute movie could have been 60, easily. There are several random, pointless musical numbers -- some not even sung by the Country Bears -- that need to go, and the subplot where Beary and the bears flee the police makes no sense. (If they would just pull over, Beary could explain that he was not kidnapped, and everything would be fine.)

Christopher Walken is odd, as always, and a joy to watch. You may recall that he was a shining spot in "Joe Dirt" and "Scotland, Pa.," too; waltzing in and being daft for a scenes is his specialty. Haley Joel Osment and the rest of the bears' voice actors -- the bears themselves are bear Muppets and people in bear suits -- are serviceable in their thankless tasks.

I longed for a scene where someone would freak out over the fact that bears were speaking English and writing John Hiatt songs. Or a scene where Beary gets riled and eats his adoptive parents. No such luck.

There is no reason for this movie. It does not provide a particularly good time, but it doesn't provide a particularly bad one, either. Which, again, is actually pretty high praise, all things considered.

Grade: C

Rated G, not even so much as a bears-pooping-in-the-woods joke

1 hr., 28 min.

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