It is hard, in mere language, to explain how heavily “Yogi Bear” lays upon the soul. A new 3-D kids film bringing the hungry, (ostensibly) hi-larious animated Hanna-Barbera cartoon bear to the modern big screen, it is somehow both cheap-looking and garishly expensive. It is rushed and thin and yet eternal in its grinding tedium. It feels like the direct-to-video sequel of itself, featuring the return of a cartoon character that debuted in the 1960s for the benefit of possibly no one except the copyright holders. It has a startling number of poop, pee, burp and bottom jokes. It features talented people (Tom Cavanagh, Anna Faris, T.J. Miller and Andrew Daly) who are left stranded with almost nothing to do.
In Jellystone Park, Ranger Smith (Cavanagh) works to maintain the natural splendor of the American West — trees, lakes, green fields, blue skies. His biggest problems are the overeager enthusiasm of his subordinate Ranger Jones (T.J. Miller) and the park’s most notorious resident, a talking, hat-and-tie-wearing bear named Yogi (voiced by Dan Aykroyd, who presumably needs the money). Yogi, along with his smaller friend Boo Boo (voiced by Justin Timberlake, who presumably does not) dedicates himself to stealing the picnic — excuse me, “pic-a-nic” — baskets of the park’s patrons.
Just as documentarian Rachel (Anna Faris) arrives to shoot footage of Yogi (“You have a talking brown bear? They’re quite rare.”), the mayor of the nearby municipality (Daly) seizes on a plan to rezone Jellystone for commercial exploitation, which will refill the city coffers he plundered and put money in the pockets of voters (and any resemblance to Alaska’s oil-revenue payouts to its residents is possibly intentional). Smith can save the park if he can show a break-even balance sheet, but his efforts are hindered by that darn bear.
Directed by Eric Brevig (“Journey to the Center of the Earth“), “Yogi Bear” is less bad than it is inert. There will be wacky chases, pie-hurling antics, and Yogi will discover that there’s more to life than basket-snaring scams and schemes. The 3-D is fairly thin, and the quasi-realistic Yogi, all fur and fang and bulk, is somewhere between scary and stupid-looking. (I for one kept flashing back to “Grizzly Man,” which, it is to be hoped, the kids in the audience will not, but at least that took my mind off the antics on-screen.)
Aykroyd plays Yogi as a blowhard and a braggart (“I can’t help it! My melon is full of smart juice!”), and Timberlake plays Boo Boo as stalwart and steady in the face of ill-considered plans and selfish pic-a-nic basket snatching. There’s one sequence of action that made me laugh, if only because it felt like a lift from “Point Break,” but overall the movie feels like a rushed corporate moneymaker — a few splashy visuals and some goony 3-D patched over a threadbare plot.
Cavanagh, Faris and Miller are all talented and funny, but they’re given little to do aside from ride the gentle curves of the movie’s three-act structure and fill its ready-for-the-small-screen scope. The writing team has extensive TV credits, but, really, the problem here is not the lack of cinematic-scaled ambition. The problem here is Hollywood, as ever, committing a series of safe nostalgia-fueled films that represent less risk than, say, actually making something new.
If you’re looking to plunk your kids in front of something, anything, for 80 minutes of peace and quiet during the holidays, you could do a lot worse than “Yogi Bear,” but, let us be honest, you could also do a hell of a lot better, and you kind of know that already. (“Hey, kids! Come and see a cartoon character I loved as a kid! He’s a bear named after a baseball manager from when your grandpa was a kid and … oh, never mind.”) the fact that “Yogi Bear” will earn money during the holidays is really only good news if you’re a Warner Brothers shareholder. Or if you own the copyrights to Deputy Dawg.