The Country Bears (2002)

It became a running joke that in the mid-aughts, Disney had run out of ideas. We say that about Hollywood in general even today, but there was an eerie ring of truth to it back then. This was when they were in the heart of the sequel era, Eisner’s late-term stinginess turned out off-the-shelf, uninspired rides for the parks, and most glaring of all, this was when Disney was hoping to make movies based on their theme park properties as sources of inspiration.

But let’s be fair: Disney attractions (mostly) aren’t just roller coasters and tilt-a-whirls. They are themed experiences. They tell stories. There are characters and narratives where we average joes either get to participate in the story or just go along for the ride. Even rides like It’s a Small World have a solid identity. Obviously some attractions have more potential than others to be become good stories. Which should come as no surprise when in 1997, a made-for-TV movie about Walt Disney World’s relatively new attraction, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, premiered, called…Tower of Terror. (Huh. Must’ve been the same creative team that named the dinosaur ride Dinosaur…)

After the disappointing returns with 2000’s Mission to Mars, Disney decided to invest heavier into films based on established theme park attractions. Eventually, it was decided to zero in on the Country Bear Jamboree.

One of Walt Disney’s last projects before passing away in 1966 was Mineral King, a valley in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that Walt planned to convert into a ski resort. Despite outbidding other buyers, the project ultimately fell through due to the Sierra Club shutting down the project and the area became annexed by Sequoia National Park in 1978. One of the attractions planned there was an animatronic show featuring bears playing music, with legendary animator and imagineer Marc Davis doing most of the preliminary sketches. Ultimately, because the Mineral King project went belly-up, the show was placed in the brand-new Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 1971 as the very first attraction not replicated from Disneyland.

Of course, it didn’t stay that way. The show proved so popular that less than a year later, the show was placed in its own land in Disneyland, dubbed Bear Country (today, it’s Critter Country), and Tokyo got its own one a decade later. It became popular enough that it was one of the few attractions to have seasonal performances, with both a Christmas show and a summer show at various times. But as time wore on, the novelty of seeing anthropomorphic animals singing hokey bluegrass wore off, partly because it was a gimmick replicated in local Chuck E. Cheese establishments. Soon, the seasonal shows were discontinued, and the Disneyland attraction was replaced by The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in 2001.

So with that all being said, let’s broadly beam and bear it, as we begin boldly basking to boisterous bluegrass bears!

The plot: Beary Barrington okay you know what, I’m gonna just review something else.

Apparently I will lose executive bathroom privileges from WordPress if I don’t review this. So please bear with me as I try to get through this before my brain hemorrhages.

Beary Barrington (Played by Haley Joel Osment), a humanoid bear lives with his human family but questions if he was adopted. Feeling distraught, he runs away to find his heroes, the Country Bears, a classic country/blues/rock band comprised of Ted and Fred Bedderhead, Zeb Zoober, and Tennesssee O’Neal. However, Beary is doubly dumbfounded to find not only have the bears disbanded years ago, but their home, Country Bear Hall, is under threat of being repossessed by the bank, courtesy of a greedy banker Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken). Beary convinces Henry (Kevin Michael Richardson), the caretaker, that they could raise the necessary $20,000 if they get the band back together and perform a benefit concert.

But there are numerous problems. Beary’s parents are worried sick and send out two incompetent cops to hunt them down. The band refuses to get along, with Ted not even wanting to come back. And Thimple is plotting to take down the hall anyway by any means necessary.

How’s the writing?: Oh, it’s bad. It’s really, really bad.

The one huge problem is the fact this movie has a piss-poor understanding of scope. Let’s use another example for comparison:

Yogi lives within the confines of Jellystone National Park, living as a bear. He rarely interacts with anyone aside from Ranger Smith, whose job is to keep Yogi under control. The cartoons are wacky enough that we buy the hat-wearing, collar-and-tie sporting bear can enact all sorts of cockamamie schemes to appropriate “pic-a-nic” baskets.

Compare this to The Country Bears, where bears just…live alongside us hominids. No explanation, they just co-exist with us. Yet they still try to joke about how Beary was a wild bear cub at one point. Bears and humans. They wear clothes and speak clear English to everyone as if that crap were normal. It looks exactly like our world…except bears can be your neighbors because shut up. And only one character, Beary’s brother Dex, is the straight man, unable to understand why everyone thinks anthropomorphic bears are normal. It’s a super mixed message.

Now, with Yogi only hanging out in Jellystone, conversing with only one other human, doing bear-ish stuff, that’s all easy to accept, especially given the madcap nature of Hanna-Barbera. But The Country Bears asks us to accept not just bear coexistence, but the fact a band akin to the legacy of The Clash, The Rolling Stones, or Waylon Jennings had revolutionized modern music, sold millions of records, and even inspired the likes of Willie Nelson, Sir Elton John, and even Xzhibit. The problem is this premise gives zero thought how it might affect the real world. After all, the framing of this film wants to look, sound, feel, and exist like our standard world…and it can’t do that while bears are somehow coexisting with us Homo sapiens.

But even if the tone and scope allowed us to accept all that, the plot is basically that of The Blues Brothers. And the jokes are wretched. There are moments where the plot stops entirely just to play out an over-the-top music number at least twice, and the tone it wants to take as a kid’s movie is just patronizing. Among the more cringe-inducing gags are…

1. Their roadie…named Roadie…is surprised his pet, Mr. Chicken, is a girl. This is a running gag.

2. The officers who go through Looney Tunes-esque gags are officers Hamm and Cheets.

3. Big Al constantly and gruffly responds to any person asking “what is this”, referring to what is posted on a sign he’s putting up with “It’s a sign!”

4. Christopher Walken’s secret talent is doing armpit fart noises.

Are you laughing yet? I sincerely doubt it. These jokes would fall flat on an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, and here they are in a live action summer Disney release.

Does it give the feels?: Not even remotely. There’s a rather soulless moment when Ted, after essentially being bear-napped into rejoining the band, starts ripping into his band mates. It’s bad enough he gets nasty with them until he rips into Beary, too. And while he eventually apologizes, it was just too callous and uncalled for. Plus, Beary just kind of takes a literal backseat compared to all the more colorful band characters, so it’s hard to reconnect with a protagonist who’s little more than just a kid who runs away from home.

I don’t really care if they get back together. Zeb is busy slumming it in a bar, Tennessee is a self-pitying whiner, and Ted is just an arrogant jerk. And all the rest are idiots. Who am I supposed to feel for, exactly?

Who makes it worth it?: If there’s one actor who clearly gave his all and came out on top here, it’s Christopher Walken. The movie is just that weird and uncomfortable, but only Walken has taken to embracing it, giving it dead serious performance while crushing models in his boxers and slippers, or farting his armpit. He hams up the evil shtick, as the movie’s best saving grace, right down his meme-worthy “This is not over, BEARS!” line read.

Best quality provided: Aside from Walken’s bizarre performance, you do have to admire the bear costumes themselves. They were made by Jim Henson Productions, and they look pretty cool. It’s just too bad they look too much like real bears. It’s kind of like if the toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit were CGI instead of hand drawn, just making them look that much more real just doesn’t help. But at least they look good.

What could have been improved: While I’m not one to cry changes in adaptation over this movie (because, let’s be honest, aside from the fact the Country Bear Jamboree has no plot, it has nowhere near the following rides like Pirates or Haunted Mansion have), there are some significant and curious alterations that really make it disloyal to its source material for no real reason. For instance, the main band of the attraction is comprised of Zeke, Zeb, Ted, Fred, Tennessee, and Oscar. And there are many more where that came from: Gomer the pianist, Liver Lips McGrowl, Shaker, Wendell, Teddi Barra, Trixie, triplets Bunny, Bubbles, and Beulah, Sammy the raccoon, Buff the Buffalo, Max the deer, Melvin the moose, and of course, Big Al. If you’ve never seen the attraction, it’s more like The Muppets, where each critter is their own personality that just all happen to be there at Grizzly Hall. But what characters aren’t excised entirely are given basic lip service.

The music is just…terrible. Forget they completely threw out the Country/bluegrass music in favor of bland country/rock, not a single song from the show was used. Even if you like the movie’s songs, they have nothing to do with anything. And while the attraction never had anything as popular as It’s a Small World or Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for me, one of the show’s biggest laughs was Big Al’s tone-deaf dirge of “Blood on the Saddle”. Here, Al is just some simple-minded groundskeeper that is Big Al in name only. Leading me to ask why bother adapting something if everything is going to be changed entirely from the ground up?

I guess this was Disney trying to connect with kids today. The Country Bears are less able to adapt its Frontierland shtick to connect with modern, cool audiences, even in 2002, when most country music suddenly gained immense popularity thanks in part to a flurry of patriotic 9/11 tribute songs. But boy, does it just not work.

Verdict: Holy cow, this film was bad. I’m no fan of the original attraction, but I can respect what it is and what personality it has. And it can be adapted well to a different medium. But with the appeal of the original scrubbed away, jokes that hurt, music that’s boring, in a premise that’s alienating, it flopped disastrously. I give this leavings in the woods a grizzly two blood-covered saddles out of ten.

I doubt the bears will return with another album, per se, but here’s hoping they bring their “A” game next time.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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