The bears outperform the humans in "The Country Bears," a movie based on the Disney theme-park show "Country Bear Jamboree." And why shouldn't they? Playing the longtime park band -- fiddler Zeb Zoober, one-string thang player Tennessee O'Neal, lead guitarist/banjo picker Ted Bedderhead and bassist Fred Bedderhead -- are hordes of talented people, with the good ol' bears animatronically re-created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and given musical/dramatic life by songwriter John Hiatt and lots of actors, singers and puppeteers.
Unfortunately, the humans only have scripts to support them. So for every bear triumph, "Country Bears" also features cliched jokes, corny sentiment, ludicrous shtick and the most flabbergasting set of star cameos since Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson wandered into "Men in Black II."
Rarely has such a silly movie been graced by so many weird star turns. "Country Bears" is a by-the-numbers family comedy featuring the four rustic bluegrass bears, who've been whooping it up at various Disney park jamborees since they were introduced at Walt Disney World in 1971. But as the tale of their proposed reunion and their battle against bad bank guy Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken) thumpingly unwinds, stars keep rolling in -- everyone from Queen Latifah to Elton John.
One of the unlikeliest stars isn't making a cameo, but playing the voice-acting lead: Haley Joel Osment as alienated but plucky 11-year-old Barry Bearington, who leaves his human family (dad Stephen Tobolowsky and mom Meagan Fay) after being teased by his human brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) and wanders off to find his idols and role models. Unfortunately, the Bears are scattered around the country, and Country Bear Hall is about to be bulldozed by the evil Thimple. Only a determined effort by Barry and the Bears' old road manager (M.C. Gainey) can help reassemble the guys for a benefit concert and save the day.
Will Barry find and reunite them despite the crazed Thimple and the chuckleheaded police team of Hamm (Daryl Mitchell) and Cheets (Diedrich Bader)? Whatever non-suspense and non-amusement is involved in answering that question, thanks to Perez's screenplay there is a certain thrill as each new cameo star comes rolling preposterously on.
One by one they pop up: Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles' Don Henley admiring a sizzling Country Bears bar set, Brian Setzer in a guitar-fiddle duel with Zeb Zoober (to Setzer's original song "I'm Only in It for the Honey"), Jennifer Paige as a singing waitress, Willie Nelson and Queen Latifah both citing The Bears as a major influence, and Sir Elton John puttering around on the presumed estate of C.B. lead guitarist Ted Bedderhead. In a strange way, the producers and director Peter Hastings are trying to be as hip as possible here. The Bears' band even uses Elvis Costello's old drummer, Pete Thomas. But it's a losing battle, even if the Bears themselves aren't a bad bar band. Picking and wailing out a set of John Hiatt songs (with Hiatt singing for Tennessee O'Neal), the Bears manage to sound at least like Lynyrd Skynyrd at a Sunday picnic.
What makes this movie somewhat worth looking at is the way the animatronics experts, puppeteers and voice actors make these bears come alive: Stephen Root as Zeb, Hiatt and Toby Huss as Tennessee, Brad Garrett as Fred, and Bader (again) as Ted (with Candy Ford as Bear chanteuse Trixie, and growly James Gammon as Bear caretaker Big Al). They're fun to watch and hear -- but why can't the humans be as human?
Is it really an advantage to invest such subtlety and warmth in an animatronic bear when the humans are acting like puppets? "Country Bears" features a comic car wash sequence staged to the theme song of the 1976 movie "Car Wash." There's also a sustained joke about armpit music, and Alex Rocco as a '60s burnout promoter with a phony wig. But of all the humans involved, Dex is the only one who ever registers the fact that he's talking to bears. There is one weirdo inspiration: Thimple, dancing in bunny slippers to a Bob Dylan ballad. But even with Walken to raise the curve, the human actors are trapped on a sub-sitcom level.
"The Country Bears" once again proves that any well-known commercial property is grist for Hollywood's mill -- we may yet see a $100 million feature based on the works of Ronald McDonald. Indeed, two more Disney park rides are already scheduled to be turned into movies: "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion." And a Country Bears sequel is already in the works. Don't get me wrong: I think these bears are cute ol' boys. But though children may enjoy this movie, some adults will hate themselves in the morning.
"The Country Bears"
Directed by Peter Hastings; written by Mark Perez III; photographed by Mitchell Amundsen; edited by George Bowers, Seth Flaum, Dean Holland; production designed by Dan Bishop; songs by John Hiatt, with Peter Hastings, and Brian Setzer; music by Christopher Young; produced by Jeffrey Chernov, Andrew Gunn. A Buena Vista Pictures release; opens Friday, July 26. Running time: 1:28. MPAA rating: G.
Beary Barrington -- voice of Haley Joel Osment
Reed Thimple -- Christopher Walken
Ted Bedderhead -- voice of Diedrich Bader
Mr. Barrington -- Stephen Tobolowsky
Roadie -- M.C. Gainey
Officer Hamm -- Daryl Mitchell Singing Waitress -- Jennifer Paige
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.