Motivated solely by corporate greed, Disney has recently begun cranking out low-ambition, high-profit margin throwaway pictures as bad as any of the odious junkers (e.g. "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes") that the studio released in the 1960s and '70s.
If it's not soulless, uncalled for sequels ("Return to Never Land," "Cinderella 2"), it's hackneyed kiddie-angst comedies ("The Princess Diaries," "Max Keeble's Big Move") with no greater purpose than the mindless, robotic recycling of familiar themes to sell soundtracks and videos through relentless self-promotion on ABC TV and Radio Disney.
But this trend may have hit a new low with the release of "The Country Bears," in which writer Mark Perez and director Peter Hastings take an outdated, Chuck E. Cheese-quality Disneyland attraction called the Country Bear Jamboree and turn it into a trite, cliché-packed embarrassment of a feature film.
Working from what is barely an outline of a script cobbled together from elements of "The Blues Brothers" (getting the band back together for a charity concert) and "Almost Famous" (tour bus road trip with a kid in tow), "The Country Bears" features country-rock singing animatronic grizzlies whose "performances," while vacant, are somehow less mechanical than those of their human co-stars, who are mostly insipid caricatures. Beary's mom, for example, is a thinly veiled 1950s housewife stereotype.
The plot: After years of taunting by his obnoxious human brother, fur-covered 4th-grader Beary Barrington (whose voice is provided by Haley Joel Osment) has just figured out he's adopted. So he runs away to find his "higher purpose in life" -- reuniting his favorite band, The Country Bears, which broke up before he was born. Don't try to make sense of it.
Venturing to the log-cabin roadhouse that used to be the band's headquarters, Beary discovers it's about to be foreclosed and demolished by a greedy banker (Christopher Walken, in the film's single amusing performance). He convinces one of the band member bears to dust off the old tour bus, and they set out to find the scattered Country Bear musicians and hold a reunion concert to save Country Bear Hall.
Four spiritless episodes follow as each bandmate is tracked down (one's a security guard, one's a wedding singer, one's a marriage counselor and one's a bar fly) and cajoled into joining the crusade. These scenes are interspersed with meager subplots (two inept cops are looking for the "kidnapped" Beary) and badly lip-synced song-and-dance music video sequences performed by the bears and/or generic Britney Spears-wannabes they meet along the way.
Thrown together in a hasty, choppy, uncreative, continuity-lacking, who-cares-it's-just-a-kids-movie fashion, "The Country Bears" skips like a flat stone across the surface of a plot, doing little to establish its characters (knowing which bear is which depends entirely on their clothing) or their motives (why did the band break up in the first place?).
"Bears" is supposed to be a comedy, but minimal-effort is put toward its "jokes." The picture's big running gag has each Country Bear to ask "Who is this guy?" when they meet Beary. I counted exactly two occasions on which the kids at a recent preview screening even chuckled. Director Hastings seems more concerned with highlighting the flick's numerous cameos by the likes of Willie Nelson, Queen Latifah, Elton John, Brian Setzer Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt. Some of them sing while others just make you wonder what Disney is holding over them to make them appear in this bomb.
The one saving grace of "The Country Bears" is that its original songs (mostly by folk and blues man John Hiatt) are melodious enough to seem pleasant at the time, while being hollow enough to evaporate from your memory before the closing credits. None of them remotely resembles honky-tonky novelty tunes from the Disneyland ride, although I'm sure that will be changed to coincide with the movie.
Disney is poised to roll out half a dozen empty-calorie features based on its theme park rides if this one is a success ("Haunted Mansion" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" are already in production). So consider yourself warned and please don't encourage them.
Run time: 88 mins
In Theaters: Friday 26th July 2002
Box Office USA: $16.9M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Distribution Compa
Production compaines: Walt Disney Pictures, Working Bear Productions
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 30%
Fresh: 24 Rotten: 56
IMDB: 3.9 / 10
Director: Peter Hastings
Starring: Haley Joel Osment as Beary Barrington (voice), Diedrich Bader as Officer Cheets / Ted Bedderhead (voice), Candy Ford as Trixie (voice), James Gammon as Big Al (voice), Brad Garrett as Fred Bedderhead (voice), Toby Huss as Tennessee O'Neal (voice), Kevin Michael Richardson as Henry (voice), Stephen Root as Zeb (voice), Christopher Walken as Reed Thimple, Stephen Tobolowsky as Norbert Barrington, Daryl Mitchell as Officer Hamm (as Daryl 'Chill' Mitchell), M.C. Gainey as Roadie, Alex Rocco as Rip Holland, Meagen Fay as Mrs. Barrington (as Megan Fay)