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The Country Bears (March 23/03)

Musicals are pretty hot right now, what with the whole Chicago phenomenon. But as that film proved, it's not an easy genre to tackle and when it's done badly (as it was with Chicago), it's almost excruciating. The difference between an enjoyable musical and a lame one boils down to the music itself. It's got to be peppy and catchy, two qualities that were sorely missing from every song in Chicago. But The Country Bears, though it's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, contains a half dozen musical numbers that are more enjoyable than anything else in the movie.

Set in some kind of a bizarre parallel universe where humans and bears live side by side, The Country Bears follows Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) as he attempts to re-unite the titular band. Evidently, they used to be quite famous, selling out shows and inspiring real-life acts like Willie Nelson, but broke up some time in the early '90s. Their legendary abode, the aptly named Country Bear Hall, is going to be demolished unless they can come up with $20,000 in a matter of days. The solution? A reunion concert, of course.

There's nothing particularly original or cutting-edge about The Country Bears, yet it manages to entertain (most of the time). That's likely due to the high energy of the musical numbers and the laid-back nature of the characters. The bears themselves are a lot of fun to watch, and though the animatronic movements of their mouths never belie their mechanical nature, the voice-over work of the various actors is distinctive enough to convince us of their reality. And, of course, there's the many musical numbers - some with the bears, but others featuring pop artists I've never heard of (Krystal?) The songs are poppy and energetic, and even though they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot (the bears wander into a diner, and their waitress offers up a tune based on a song they made famous), they're easily the most effective aspect of the film.

Some mention must be given to the presence of Christopher Walken in this film. Playing the evil land developer that wants to destroy County Bear Hall, Walken has a lot of fun hamming it up in this small role and one has to assume he did it to please a small child in his life. And hey, the movie just might be worth a rental if only for the sight of watching Christopher Walken belt out a musical number using only his hand and his armpit. Among the other human actors, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell and Diedrich Bader as a pair of goofy cops provide The Country Bears with its sole laughs (and the fact that it even had some funny moments is in itself impressive, and more than I can say for something like Boat Trip).

Look, don't get me wrong - The Country Bears isn't exactly highbrow entertainment. But for what it is and considering the target audience, it could've been a whole lot worse.

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