Despite the familiarity of its tale about a domesticated grizzly bear being forced back into the wild, "Open Season" is a witty, warmly crafted chestnut that reps a promising feature debut from Sony's upstart toon division. The generally winning combo of fuzzy sentiment and adult-friendly humor should hunt down strong family biz.

Though hardly the first animated film to tackle the plight of domesticated animals returning to the wild, “Open Season” is a witty, warmly crafted chestnut that reps a promising feature debut from Sony’s upstart toon division. While the studio faces a significant marketing challenge in distinguishing its firstborn cub from the crowded field of CG critter pics, the generally winning combo of fuzzy sentiment and adult-friendly humor should hunt down strong family biz, with a boost from Imax 3-D playdates and big ancillary game.

At first glance, “Open Season” would seem to bear all the elements that have typified studio animation in recent years: a menagerie of fast-talking supporting players; generous dollops of bathroom humor; and animal-emo interludes set to incongruous pop songs (penned by Paul Westerberg, who also composed the film’s score with Ramin Djawadi).

Fortunately, helmers Jill Culton and Roger Allers and co-helmer Anthony Stacchi demonstrate a surprisingly light touch with obvious material, achieving a comic rhythm that’s zippy and droll rather than over-the-top manic and keeping the pop-culture references to a well-advised minimum. Even the scatological gags, though abundant and unavoidable (we are talking about a bear in the woods here), are for the most part refreshingly underplayed.

It’s three days before the start of hunting season in the mountain village of Timberline, not that Boog (voiced by Martin Lawrence), a trained bear who’s lived comfortably with forest ranger Beth (Debra Messing) since he was a cub, has anything to worry about — or so he thinks.

Boog meets and befriends Elliot (Ashton Kutcher), a mule deer with a big grin and a mischievous streak, who goads his new buddy into getting drunk on Slurpees and wreaking havoc at the local convenience store. Sadly realizing that the time has come for her oversized pet to return to its natural habitat, Beth transfers Boog (with Elliot in tow) by helicopter — in a stirring, beautifully animated sequence — to a remote forest clearing above a waterfall, where she imagines he’ll be safe from the guns of encroaching hunters.

Yet even as Boog and Elliot are stalked by the maniacally trigger-happy Shaw (a sinister Gary Sinise), Mother Nature turns out to have some hostile surprises of her own in store.

Screenplay by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman and Nat Mauldin imagines the forest as the woodland equivalent of a school playground, where Boog and Elliot are routinely mocked and rejected by various critter cliques.

Lamentably, most of these groups are ethnically delineated: A squirrel named McSquizzy is voiced by Billy Connolly with a Scottish burr, the ducks quack in French accents, and Latina audiences probably won’t appreciate being likened to ill-tempered skunks. Boog, too, has acquired a curious vocabulary, often muttering “my bad” and using “baby” as a term of endearment, though Lawrence’s warm, affable characterization lifts the creature above stereotype.

Soon Boog’s quest to return to civilization lands the entire forest population in hot water, culminating in a rousing battle between the hunters and the hunted, with some gentle lessons about friendship and teamwork. As a family-friendly fable about the necessity of relinquishing a wild animal, “Open Season” isn’t exactly “Duma,” but it delivers its eco-friendly message sweetly and without belaboring the point.

Pic also has an unusual wealth of character detail, using small but inspired visual touches to convey personality and emotion, from the single antler sported poignantly by Elliot to the teddy-bear knapsack Boog carts around as a tender reminder of his lost domicile.

Animation is first-rate, not only in the finely detailed backdrops (which came across especially vividly in an Imax 3-D screening) and the obvious pains taken to convincingly render the animals’ fur, but in the way throwaway jokes are smartly and subtly embedded at the edge of the frame, Pixar style. Rabbits, in particular, haven’t been deployed this cutely and inventively since “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

Open Season

Animated

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Sony Pictures Animation production. Produced by Michelle Murdocca. Executive producers, John Carls, Steve Moore. Co-producer, Amy Jupiter. Directed by Jill Culton, Roger Allers. Co-directed by Anthony Stacchi. Screenplay, Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, Nat Mauldin; screen story, Culton, Stacchi, based on an original story by Steve Moore, John Carls.

Crew

(Deluxe color); editor, Pamela Ziegenhagen-Shefland; music, Paul Westerberg, Ramin Djawadi; production designer, Michael Humphries; senior art director, Luc Desmarchelier; art director, Andy Harkness; art director-character designer, Carter Goodrich; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Tim Chau, Tateum Kohut; sound designer, Chau; visual effects supervisor, Doug Ikeler; supervising animators, Renato Dos Anjos, Chris Hurtt, Sean P. Mullen, Todd Wilderman; imagery and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; head of story, David Feiss;head of layout, James Williams; casting, Ruth Lambert, Mary Hidalgo. Reviewed at the Bridge, Los Angeles, Sept. 26, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Voices: Boog - Martin Lawrence Elliot - Ashton Kutcher Shaw - Gary Sinise Beth - Debra Messing McSquizzy - Billy Connolly Reilly - Jon Favreau Bobbie - Georgia Engel Giselle - Jane Krakowski Gordy - Gordon Tootoosis Ian - Patrick Warburton

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