There’s something oddly charming, even refreshingly sweet, about the frankly retro low-tech movie magic on display in “The Country Bears.” The amiable, family-friendly Walt Disney production is based on the Country Bears Jamboree, a decades-old Audio-Animatronics extravaganza at Disney theme parks. And the title characters are played by guys in bear suits — very spiffy bear suits, designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but bear suits nonetheless. The players are even less persuasive than the rubber-suited reptiles in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” pix, but that’s part of the fun. Toddlers and pre-teens will be entertained, and parents will be pleasantly surprised, by this more-than-just-bearable musical road movie, which should have a long shelf life on homevid after modestly profitable theatrical exposure.
Greatly expanding on the musical revue premise of the theme park show, director Peter Hastings and scripter Mark Perez imagine a world where humans and talking bears co-exist more or less as equals. Not long ago, an ursine ensemble of country musicians — Ted Bedderhead, Fred Bedderhead, Zeb Zoober and Tennessee O’Neal — were chart-toping superstars known as the Country Bears. However, excesses and in-fighting drove the band members apart.
Eleven-year-old Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) is the No. 1 fan of the long-defunct group, regarding the Country Bears with an intensity that seems unusual even in the pic’s skewed view. He’s so caught up with the group that he doesn’t notice he’s a little different from his dad (Stephen Tobolowsky), mom (Meagan Fay) and annoying older brother (Eli Marienthal), and it takes him a long time to realize that if he’s a bear and they’re human, he’s probably adopted.
Eager to explore his roots — and, while he’s at it, get an up-close look at his musical heroes –Beary runs away from home. He journeys to Country Bear Hall, original showcase of the Country Bears, only to find the once-popular tourist attraction has been virtually forgotten. These days, the only people — er, bears — you’ll find there are Henry Dixon Taylor (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson), museum curator and original band manager, and Big Al (voiced, terrifically, by James Gammon), a slow-drawling caretaker.
On really bad days, you’ll also find banker Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken, having the time of his life), a grudge-bearing banker who wants to foreclose on Country Bear Hall and tear it down. To save the landmark, Beary encourages Henry and the band’s former roadie (played, as a human, by M.C. Gainey) to search for the long-dispersed Country Bears and reunite the group for a benefit concert. Here and there in “The Country Bears,” you can spot hints of “The Blues Brothers” and “The Muppet Movie.”
Even as the runaway Beary is pursued by two bumbling cops (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, Diedrich Bader), the plucky little bear and his new friends search far and wide for the former bandmates, often encountering real-life (and really human) musical stars in the process.
One of the funniest bits involves an onstage musical duel between rockabilly master Brian Setzer and fiddle player Zeb Zoober (voiced by Stephen Root), a former Country Bear who sampled too much honey. (In the world according to “Country Bears,” Beeweiser honey is the drink of choice in country-flavored honky-tonks.)
Another highlight: Ex-mates Tennessee O’Neal (voiced by Toby Huss) and Trixie St. Clair (voiced by Candy Ford) reunite in a love-song duet before a barroom audience. When they warble, they sound just like Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley — who just happen to be sitting at the bar, enjoying the show.
Elton John and Willie Nelson are among other notables who appear in fleeting cameos, while rising singers Krystal Marie Harris and Jennifer Paige are spotlighted in pleasingly elaborate production numbers. John Hiatt wrote most of the original tunes, which run the gamut from plaintive C&W to peppy pop. Don’t be surprised if the soundtrack CD is a crossover bestseller.
A product of corporate synergy, “The Country Bears” undoubtedly will be viewed with suspicion and/or condescension by many critics. But pic as a whole is a gently and genuinely amusing treat that should bring smiles to target auds.
Production values are first-rate, the bear costumes are impressive — facial movements are notably expressive — and the human co-stars don’t try too hard. Well, OK, Walken tries very, very hard — but the overall effect is every bit as funny as his frisky feline turn in Cannon Films’ otherwise negligible version of “Puss in Boots” (1988).