There’s something inherently brilliant about the concept of Yogi Bear. He’s a bumbling, moronic, thousand pound, suit and tie-wearing beast that’s onto something. Rather than use his paws to catch fish or expend energy foraging in the woods, he’s decided to simply plunder the pic-a-nic baskets of unsuspecting visitors to Jellystone National Park. As a lazy man who still prefers to keep it classy, I can get behind these shenanigans. As a movie reviewer in need of some sort of depth beyond just a humorous premise, I cannot get behind these shenanigans.
Yogi Bear opens with a Road Runner/ Wile E Coyote short. It’s wonderful. After purchasing a Segway, that poor bastard of a coyote encounters all sorts of problems trying to subdue and lasso his nemesis. After a few minutes, it ends with a typically clever, full circle conclusive punch. Then we’re onto the movie, a full length feature that’s never quite sure how to adapt from punchy short to hour and twenty minute film. Yogi, like Wile E Coyote, is an animal motivated by short term goals. If there’s a picnic basket, he’ll soon follow with some cockamamie plan. He never thinks beyond the moment. He’s a slave to his most immediate emotions, which is why, when the script asks him (and the other characters) to think beyond into a nefarious scheme involving a sleazy mayor and logging rights to Jellystone, the whole thing loses a bit of steam. I still love Yogi, just not as an environmental crusader.
More than thirty grand behind and potentially victimized by a mayor (Andrew Daly) with a spending problem, Jellystone National Park is less than a week from closing. People just aren’t interested in camping anymore, and the ones that do still appreciate nature are being chased off by Yogi Bear (Dan Aykroyd) and his loyal sidekick Boo-Boo (Justin Timberlake). It’s nothing against the tourists themselves, of course. They just have picnic baskets, and well, where else is a hungry bear going to acquire chips and peach pie? Normally, Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh) is there to stop him, but after Mayor Brown informs him the land will be leased to logging companies, he has more pressing matters on his mind. Like a girl.
Rachel (Anna Faris) is a documentary filmmaker. She’s traveled to Jellystone to make a feature on Yogi, because he’s a brown bear that talks and steals picnic baskets--those are pretty rare. Ranger Smith falls in love immediately, though in the ways of women, he’s helpless. Luckily, she’s not much better. Together they plan a special 100th anniversary celebration in an attempt to raise the moneyneeded to turn a profit. Yogi and Boo-Boo prepare a water skiing routine to help, but after too much razzle leads to uncontrollable fires and crying children, Ranger Smith, Rachel and their two favorite bears must concoct a new solution to save Jellystone.
The problem with Yogi Bear is that it cannot make up its mind, which is weird because the character himself knows exactly what he wants at all times. He’s like a child, or a wild animal, without any of the pesky what-if, worst-case-scenarios to consider. Is the film about serious, overarching issues or is it about turning a Radio Flyer Wagon into a flying picnic basket catcher? I’m not sure anyone knows. When the film gives Yogi one problem to confront it shines, like in a scene where the loveable bear asks Boo-Boo to handcuff him to a tree before immediately trying to escape. Or a scene in which Yogi explains the best way to court a woman is by following her around for two days fighting any other males that approach. Unfortunately, these momentary laughs are overshadowed by extended sequences in which Yogi is asked to doubt whether he is smarter than the average bear and scenes in which he does nothing but worry about worst-case-scenarios.
In all honesty, I’m not sure there was any way to really make this film work. Tying it down to loosely connected vignettes would have likely gotten old. Focusing exclusively on the big picture would have stripped Yogi of his most basic viewpoint. Neither would have been perfect, but at least they would have taken a stance. As is, Yogi Bear just wanders around aimlessly searching, a strange hybrid of picnic basket thefts and back-to-nature asides, occasionally hitting the right note, probably because the voicework of Dan Aykroyd and Justin Timberlake is top notch and Assistant Ranger Jones’ (T.J. Miller) hatred for map stacking never gets old. It’s highly watchable for ten minute spurts, but eighty minutes in a row feels about sixty too many.
If you do decide to go, keep your children away from the vending machine. A bear keeps kicking it every time he needs a new soda.
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