What is the real problem with the recent rash of talking animal movies? The likes of Marmaduke, Cats and Dogs, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Furry Vengeance. They seem to achieve a state of universal hate from both critics and fans online, yet families still flock to them. Is it that we (the former) feel that they’re not necessary, especially those that exploit characters we grew up with? Or is it that we don’t like Hollywood telling us that they’re doing it for the right reasons, even though we can see right through their cash-grabby motives? I would wager it to be the latter. Because no one likes it when something they loved as a child is exploited for profit, especially when it’s done poorly.
Enter Yogi Bear, the live-action/CGI hybrid comedy from Warner Bros. – it will be hopelessly lumped in with all of these lower cinematic forms. It will be struck down sight-unseen because it falls into a category. But what you don’t know, dear skeptics, is that this might be that one rare bird, the rehash done in earnest, delivering a surprisingly delightful experience.
It begins in a familiar place, Jellystone Park, where Yogi Bear (voiced by Dan Aykroyd) and his lifelong companion Boo-Boo (voiced by Justin Timberlake) raom the woods in collars and ties, desperately trying to rid jolly campers of their pic-a-nic baskets. And because Yogi is smarter than the average bear, they succeed – often hilariously. This doesn’t sit well with Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh), especially when he finds out that Yogi isn’t his only problem. Jellystone has become the target of a fiscally irresponsible mayor (Andrew Daly) who’d rather sell off the park for lumber than stop buying expensive suits. And just as an adorable, slightly mal-adjusted nature documentarian (Anna Faris) comes to Jellystone to film Yogi and Boo-Boo, Ranger Smith and his woodland pals must figure out a way to save the 100-year old campground before it’s wiped out forever.
The story itself is of the basic variety, as you may be able to intuit. And it serves mostly as fodder to get from one moment of physical comedy to another – the usual rounds of bears flying through the air, pies hitting faces and T.J. Miller’s deputy ranger failing mightily at stacking brochures. But there’s something to appreciate in the simplicity. Where many of its contemporaries might try to layer in complicated narrative arcs or, on the flipside, go for the easy gross-out humor, Yogi Bear stays focused on its single narrative goal: Yogi and Boo-Boo must first destroy everything, then come back and save the day. And there must be a tiny love story between Ranger Smith and Anna Faris’ Rachel. It’s obvious, but it works. Adding anything to that simple equation makes a mess of things. It also goes against the very nature of the original cartoons upon which Yogi is based.
The most important thing to convey about Yogi Bear – it is perhaps the most good-natured adaptation of a popular 80s/90s toon (Hanna Barbara collection, or otherwise) to date. It has clearly been created in earnest with a good deal of affection for the source material. The Yogi cartoons were silly, and the movie matches said silliness. It doesn’t feel the need to be extra-silly or go for the modern brand of flatulence humor. It sticks to stealing pic-a-nic baskets and Yogi’s basket-stealing concoctions that go awry. For that, this film should be celebrated.
That’s not to say that there aren’t problems to pick at. Dan Aykroyd’s Yogi feels at first like more of an impression of the voice Daws Butler gave to the character when he first appeared in the 1960s, but he’ll grow on you. And the dialogue is giggle-worthy at times, especially when it’s delivered by Tom Cavanagh (also known as the poor man’s Lee Pace). And some of the CGI doesn’t work. All the money was clearly spent on making Yogi and Boo-Boo look very good (and they do look quite good), leaving very little spent on a particular scene involving fireworks that looks like a screensaver from Windows ’95. The important part is that even when Yogi Bear fails, it all feels in-step with the spirit of the classic Yogi Bear stories, full of levity and silliness.
The silliest and most fun performances from Justin Timberlake as Boo-Boo and Anna Faris as love interest Rachel. Timberlake gives Boo-Boo a voice that doesn’t sound like an impression and perfectly captures the wit of the character. Ever the skeptic, Boo-Boo is always loyal to Yogi, and you can feel that in both the voice performance and the detail of the CGI work from Rhythm and Hues. Faris brings her usual “wide-eyed stupid” look and her charm, putting it to work complete with animal noises. Yes, animal noises. It is very funny.
Credit director Eric Brevig (Journey to the Center of the Earth), who has turned his second feature into something so surprising in its effortless pursuit of fun. The kids are going to eat this one up and the adults, those who have really invested in and enjoyed the hungry misadventures of a tie-wearing bear and his best friend, will find that sense of nostalgia that has been sorely missing from other attempts at recapturing their childhood bliss. Yogi Bear is a good-hearted, delightful story that captures the spirit of its original, leaving its audience smiling (and possibly hungry).
The Upside: Good-natured and done in earnest, complete with fun performances from Justin Timberlake and Anna Faris. Great for the family crowd and the old school Yogi fans.
The Downside: It’s silly, simple and some of the CGI is laughably bad.
On the Side: Like many Hanna-Barbera characters, Yogi’s personality and mannerisms were based on a popular celebrity of the time. Art Carney’s Ed Norton character on The Honeymooners was said to be Yogi’s inspiration.