Movie Review – The Country Bears (2002)

Today we’re taking a look at 2002’s The Country Bears, a Disney live-action film based on the popular Country Bear Jamboree animatronic show in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.

When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, one of its original attractions was Country Bear Jamboree, an animatronic stage show featuring a large cast of musical hillbilly bears.  The show was a hit as the audiences adored the music as well as the loveable bears and their humorous antics.  Country Bear Jamboree was later added to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as well as Tokyo Disneyland in Japan, but it was ultimately removed from the California theme park in 2001.

Released in 2002, The Country Bears was the second theatrical Disney film based on an attraction in one of the theme parks (the first theatrical film was 2000’s Mission to Mars).  The Country Bears involves a young bear named Beary Barrington, and his quest to discover his true place in the world.  He finds the old Country Bears band members and convinces them to reunite and play at a fundraiser to save Country Bear Hall, their old concert venue that has fallen behind on its bills.

The Country Bears (2002) - movie poster

The Country Bears (2002) – movie poster

Directed by Peter Hastings, The Country Bears stars Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Beary Barrington, a young bear who lives with an adopted family of humans, and Christopher Walken as Reed Thimple, a banker who’s plotting to destroy Country Bear Hall.  Other actors in this film include Diedrich Bader, Darly Mitchell, Brad Garrett, and a host of celebrity cameos.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears begins with a brief overview of the The Country Bears, an all-bear country rock band that broke up in 1991.  The footage includes the bears singing “Let It Ride” (a good song, by the way) at what we presume to be one of their final concerts.

Fast forward years later.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) is a young bear that was adopted and raised by a human family.  He’s also a huge fan of The Country Bears and has artwork of the band covering his bedroom walls, and scale models of Country Bear Hall, the music hall where The Country Bears used to play.  Beary believes that he’s different from his parents and brother, and he questions about whether or not he was really adopted.  His parents deny that he was adopted, but Beary’s brother, Dex (Eli Marienthal), tells him the truth.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

Disheartened about where he really belongs in the world, Beary hops on a bus and heads to Country Bear Hall to try to meet his idols.  When he arrives he meets Big Al (voiced by James Gammon), the caretaker of Country Bear Hall, and learns that banker Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken) is set to foreclose on the Hall.  Apparently the bears have not made payments for many years and now owe the bank $20,000 for the concert venue.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

Beary convinces Henry Dixon Taylor (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) to gather The Country Bears band together and to hold a benefit concert to save Country Bear Hall.  A plan is set and Henry and Beary take off in the band’s old bus along with their bus driver and driver, Roadie (M.C. Gainey).  They drive away and begin searching for the old band members.

Meanwhile, Beary’s parents have discovered that Beary had run away from home.  They call the police and Officers Cheets (Diedrich Bader) and Hamm (Daryl Mitchell) gather evidence and then head out in search of Beary.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The first bear to be approached is Fred Bedderhead (voiced by Brad Garrett), the band’s harmonica and electric bass player.  These days Fred is working as a security guard for the singer Krystal.  When Krystal discovers that Fred used to be part of The Country Bears, she’s thrilled and sings the song “The Kid in You.”  After the song, Henry and Beary approach Fred and convince him to join the band again.

Henry then calls the band’s former promoter, Rip Holland (Alex Rocco), and convince him to promote the upcoming benefit concert for Country Bear Hall.  Rip pretends to still be a hotshot promoter, but after the phone call we see that he’s really a washed out promoter who has to use a display in an office supply store as his “headquarters.”

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

Henry, Fred and Beary then head off to find the next member of the old band.  While riding in the bus, Beary looks through his scrapbook and Fred tells him about The Country Bears’ first success at winning a local talent show.  The bears defeated an “armpit musician” named Benny Boggswaggle in a talent competition.  Benny was so upset that he lost that he took a chair and hit Zeb Zoober on top of his head.

Meanwhile, Reed pays another visit to Country Bear hall and learns from Big Al about the upcoming benefit concert to save the Hall.  This news alarms Reed, and he races away to find a way to stop the bears from succeeding.

Henry, Fred and Beary arrive at The Swarmin’ Hive Honey Club and quickly learn that Zeb Zoober (voiced by Stephen Root), the band’s fiddle player, owes “Cha-Cha” (Queen Latifah), the restaurant’s owner $500.  Zeb wants to join the band, but he cannot leave the bar until his debt is paid.  Beary comes up with a plan and wages a bet with Cha-Cha —- If Zeb can play better than the bar’s house band, then Zeb’s debt is forgiven and he can leave.  Otherwise, Cha-Cha will receive the group’s bus as payment.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The house band and Zeb challenge each other while singing, “I’m Only In It for the Honey.”  Zeb is rusty at first, but when the song gets going Zeb shines and beats the house band.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The following morning, Officers Cheets and Hamm arrive at Country Bear Hall and question Big Al about the whereabouts of Beary.  When Big Al mentions that Beary left with Henry and Roadie, the two police officers take off in hot pursuit.  What Big Al forgot to mention was that Beary was friends with them.  The police officers are under the belief that Beary was kidnapped.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The bears next meet with Tennessee O’Neal (voiced by Toby Huss), the band’s one-string guitar player.  Tennessee is currently working as a marriage counselor, but he’s too heartbroken over his breakup with ex-girlfriend Trixie St. Claire to be an effective counselor.  The group takes him to a restaurant to discuss his return to the band for the benefit concert.  While at the restaurant, the bears meet a waitress (Jennifer Paige) who is dreaming of one day becoming a singer.  She sings and the entire restaurant dances to the song, “Kick It Into Gear.”  The song motivates Tennessee into moving on and getting back together with the band.

After the song, a television in the restaurant has a news broadcast concerning Beary, whom the police believe have been kidnapped by The Country Bears.  Just then Officers Cheets and Hamm enter that same restaurant, and the bears make a quick getaway.  The police spot them fleeing and give chase from their patrol car.  Roadie then loses the police when he drives the bus through a car wash and the police follow him.  The two cops get stuck in the wash and the bears make a clean getaway.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

That evening the bears stop at a motel for some rest.  Beary goes outside and calls his brother, telling him that everything is all right.  Dex informs Beary that he and their parents are worried about him, and they’d love for him to return home.  After the phone call, Beary spots a billboard advertising Trixie St. Claire (voiced by Candy Ford) singing at that very motel.  They head down to the bar and Tennessee reunites with Trixie.  The two of them sing, “Can Love Stand the Test,” and Trixie joins The Country Bears for their benefit concert.

The following day the bears reach the home of Ted Bedderhead (voiced by Diedrich Bader), the group’s lead singer and guitarist.  They’re surprised that Ted is living in a mansion.  Unfortunately, Ted is not home and the mansion’s gardener (Elton John) informs them that Ted is at the country club working at a wedding.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The bears arrive at the country club and Ted acts like a hotshot.  Ted is upset at seeing the old gang, and he has them all removed from the country club.  The gang quickly discovers his secret as Ted is really the wedding singer, and that he doesn’t own a mansion.  He merely rents a room there.  When Ted refuses to join the band, Fred knocks him out with a punch and then drags him on the bus.

A little while later Ted has Roadie stop the bus so that he can confront them.  Ted then reminds them about how he was the person (errr, bear) who held the band together.  The others had their bad and annoying habits, and it was Ted who kept them focused and the band functioning.  Since he was never given any thanks or gratitude, he left the band and has no desire to return, even for a benefit concert.  When Beary reminds them of being a family, Ted tells him that the “family” was really meaningless publicity.  Beary then realizes the true meaning of family, and he returns home to his adopted brother and parents.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

Back on the bus, the bears realize that when Beary left to go home, he forgot to take his belongings.  Fred discovers a “hero” letter that Beary wrote in school, one in which Beary talks about his admiration for The Country Bears.  The letter changes the bears’ opinions and they realize that Beary was right, that they really were and still are a family.

The Country Bears’ bus arrives at Beary’s house and Ted personally speaks with Beary and tells him that he was right.  Ted is rejoining The Country Bears, and they want Beary to join them for the benefit concert.  Beary is overjoyed at the news.  However, when they step outside to board the bus, Roadie runs up and tells them that the bus was stolen and the bears were kidnapped by Reed Thimple.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

Dex realizes that Beary’s possessions are still on the bus, and that includes a tracking device that Dex secretly planted on Beary some time ago.  Beary’s family climbs into their car and Ted rides along in a boat being pulled on a trailer, and they track and race to save The Country Bears.  While the family is racing there, Reed is holding the remaining bears captive in a cage.  He reveals to them that he is really Benny Boggswaggle, and he still hasn’t forgiven the bears for beating him in that talent show many years ago, stealing his one chance for fame.  The Country Bears are then freed when Beary’s family arrives at the location and accidentally crashes through a wall of the building.

It’s now a race against time for The Country Bears to make it back to Country Bear Hall for the benefit concert.  Beary and his family join The Country Bears on their bus as they head back to the Hall.

When the bears finally arrive back at the Country Bear Hall that night, it looks like they’re too late.  Reed Thimple is there and he tells them that he paid Rip to *not* promote their show.  The Hall itself is deserted and there are no cars outside.  Just as Henry is about to attack Reed, Big Al enters and asks if the bears are still going to do their show.  He tells them that everybody has been waiting out back as he didn’t want any of them waiting in the front and damaging his lawn.

The Country Bears (2002) - (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The Country Bears (2002) – (c) Buena Vista Pictures

The doors open and a flood of people enter Country Bear Hall.  It’s implied that the crowd raised enough money to pay off the Hall’s debt, keeping it out of Reed’s grasp.  Reed is then removed from the Hall as the bears prepare for their concert.  Beary is taken on stage as an honorary member of the band, and The Country Bears start the concert by singing, “Straight to the Heart of Love.”

The Country Bears ends with a short mocumentary of various celebrities talking about how The Country Bears and their style of music has improved their life.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Is 2002’s The Country Bears a good movie?

That depends on whether or not you’ve seen the classic musical-comedy, The Blues Brothers.  That’s because The Country Bears is basically a huge rip-off of The Blues Brothers, a far superior movie in nearly every way.

Some of the problems in The Country Bears include not enough moments and songs featuring The Country Bears performing on screen, the pure stupidity of Beary *not* knowing that he was adopted, two incredibly stupid police officers who try to find Beary, not enough depth into Reed Thimple’s character, and no other talking animals anywhere in this film.  Are those bears the only walking and talking animals in existence?

It’s so funny when people sound so surprised to learn that the bears have been members of The Country Bears when we don’t see any other talking animals in the movie.  At that rate, *any* talking bear should have been a member of the old band, versus these specific bears.

Aside from the numerous parallels to The Blues Brothers, and the scores of other problems throughout the film, The Country Bears is a major disappointment to those of us who know and love the Country Bear Jamboree show in the Magic Kingdom.  This film had so much potential to tell more about the bears and their antics, but it failed to capture any of that magic or excitement.

Magic Kingdom - Country Bear Jamboree

Magic Kingdom – Country Bear Jamboree

In this film you will not see Melvin, Buff or Max (the three talking animal heads on the wall of Grizzly Hall, not Country Bear Hall as it’s called in the movie).  Nor will you see Liver Lips McGrowl, Wendell, Teddi Barra, or The Sun Bonnet Trio.

Country Bear Jamboree - Henry Country Bear Jamboree - Big Al Country Bear Jamboree - Trixie

The Country Bears does feature Henry, the host of the show, but this version is older, much less entertaining, and he’s also missing the raccoon in his top hat.  We also see clips of Big Al, but his version is also terrible, and for some reason he doesn’t perform with the band like he does in the show.  The movie includes Trixie, and while she is still heartbroken like she is in the show, the movie’s version of Trixie looks a lot like Teddi Barra, the young female bear who swings from the ceiling of the show and has all of the bears’ undivided attention.

Country Bear Jamboree - The Five Bear Rugs

Country Bear Jamboree – The Five Bear Rugs

It’s obvious that the main band members in The Country Bears are The Five Bear Rugs in the show — Zeke, Zeb, Ted, Fred and Tennessee, just without Zeke, the bear that blows on an empty jug.

But what about Baby Oscar, the little bear that sits with The Five Bear Rugs, but he only holds a teddy bear and looks at the audience?

I’m guessing that the character of Beary Barrington is supposed to represent a teenage version of Baby Oscar.  However, if that was true, then The Country Bears could have easily revolved around a plot of Oscar and his family as they performed in the band and travelled across the country, and not the lame story that was presented in the film.

The Country Bears could have been a significantly better film if it focused on the bears while they were younger and still performing across the country.  We could have seen the origins of the band, how the family members behave during Christmas and while on vacation, and all of their antics during their concerts.  It could have been a significantly better film to complement and add more to the classic attraction, and not trashing it by having a lame plot full of clichés, predictability, and cringe moments.

A modern version of the film could also use today’s incredibly lifelike computer animation to present the movie bears as looking exactly like their counterparts in the classic attraction.  That’s another problem with the film, The Country Bears.  While I appreciate Hollywood using costumed actors, most of the bears either looked the same as each other (apart from a different wardrobe), and almost none of them looked like older versions of the animatronics in the Magic Kingdom’s show.  The bears in The Country Bears just seemed like random bears, and not the bears in Country Bear Jamboree.

The Country Bears (2002) – movie trailer

I’d love to see Disney basically re-do this film correctly.  The attraction has great characters and plenty of potential for material, and with the right cast and film crew, it could be a major blockbuster.

But will that really happen?

It’s doubtful.  Since this film failed miserably with both the audiences and the critics, it’s not likely for Disney to go back and push the material again any time soon, even if it’s a completely different experience.  Those waters might still be bloody after the sharks tore it apart back in 2002.

Fortunately, the Country Bear Jamboree is still a hit with with the crowds in the Magic Kingdom.  At least people can still visit the attraction and see the *real* Country Bears in action.

one-and-a-half stars

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