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Dustin Putman

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The Country Bears (2002)
3 Stars

Directed by Peter Hastings
Cast: Eli Marienthal, Christopher Walken, Stephen Tobolowsky, Meagen Fay, Diedrich Bader, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, Alex Rocco, Krystal Harris, Jennifer Paige, Queen Latifah, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Willie Nelson, Brian Setzer, Xzibit, Don Was
Voices: Haley Joel Osment, James Gammon, Candy Ford, Brad Garrett, Toby Huss, Diedrich Bader, John Hiatt
2002 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated G (nothing objectionable).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 26, 2002.

Based on the unlikely source material of a Disney theme park attraction, "The Country Bears" is a sweetheart of a movie. Part road picture, part musical, and part moralistic family drama, the film is a dazzling 88-minute entertainment that features a stream of lovable characters (both human and bear, courtesy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop) in a nice little story about unconditional love and what being a family really means. The original songs, written by John Hiatt, may be the best use of melodic material written for the screen since Aimee Mann's incendiary music for 1999's "Magnolia." Topping it all off is a G-rated, live-action feature that adults can enjoy just as enormously as the younger audience members.

Following a prologue showing the much-haralded country-rock band, The Country Bears, at the prime of their careers in the early 1990s, the action moves to the present day. Distraught over his older brother, Dex's (Eli Marienthal), taunting about him not being a real family member because he is a bear rather than a human, 11-year-old Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) decides to run away from his generally happy home to find his birth parents. While on the road, he happens across the Country Bear Concert Hall, which is going to be demolished by snide banker Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken) unless they can come up with $20,000. Soon, Beary has set out with his new friends to gather up the old Country Bears bandmembers in order to throw a reunion concert and raise the needed money to save the hall. Meanwhile, Beary's loving and distraught human parents (Stephen Tobolowsky, Meagen Fay) hire two bickering police officers (Diedrich Bader, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) to find Beary, whom they believe has been kidnapped.

Aided by a screenplay by Mark Perez, first-time director Peter Hastings has crafted "The Country Bears" into a cheerful family movie with the right measurements of light-hearted sweetness and rousing song-and-dance numbers. The path Beary, understatedly voiced by Haley Joel Osment (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"), must take in order to find his rightful place in the world is a universal theme that resonates within this fantasy where human beings and talking bears co-exist in peace.

As Beary's unconditionally caring parents, Stephen Tobolowsky (1999's "The Insider") and Meagen Fay (1999's "Magnolia") grasp an idealistic tone that appropriately compliments the story, while Eli Marienthal (2001's "American Pie 2") is charismatic as brother Dex. As the token villain, Christopher Walken (2001's "Joe Dirt") avoids going over-the-top, but it is still awkward seeing someone of his powerful caliber appearing here.

An impressive line-up of musicians make cameos, some of which perform. A balladic duet between Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley (playing themselves, as well as the singing voices of two of the bears) called "Can Love Stand The Test" is genuinely beautiful, while other musical numbers involving Krystal Harris and Jennifer Paige also delight with vitality and mirth. Credit lyricist and composer John Hiatt for creating a soundtrack that is a must-buy for anyone into the country-rock and folk-rock genres.

Totally absent of bathroom humor, "The Country Bears" is a welcome return to the more innocent days when the Muppets were the talk of children everywhere. Teaching a valuable lesson about friends and family is a tricky topic to pull off without preaching to the older audience members, but director Peter Hastings has pulled it off. "Stuart Little 2" and "Lilo & Stitch" were respectable motion pictures in their own right, but "The Country Bears" is the most satisfying family film of the summer.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman