>> In Defense of ‘Yogi Bear’

What exactly are your expectations when attending a live-action, feature-length Yogi Bear film?  Do you lower your head, resigned, as if to avoid a rainstorm of poop jokes and instantly dated stabs at pop culture relevancy?  This is because you already know the drill.  Cartoon adaptations are a slog.  The animation is weird — glass-eyed and lifeless.  Actual jokes are substituted for passe youth culture catch-phrases.  The human actors look pained, paired with an x on a stick as their acting partner, forever concerned with maintaining the correct line-of-sight while playing straight man to some creature that looks like the nightmare offspring of a live animal and a human being.

Animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera probably never envisioned their bears, Yogi and Boo Boo, shaking their rumps to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and on its surface, I can understand how this sounds like the same kind of embarrassing, inappropriate humor that worms its way into every subpar kids’ flick.  In most of these types of movies, this moment would indicate that somewhere along the way (probably a studio note from a 60-year old producer), it was decided that (faux) hipness should rear its head every now and then, both for the cool kids and their cool parents.  A song is selected, hopelessly past its novelty expiration date (usually because it’s cheap), almost always borderline vulgar (how many times now have we seen George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” used in talking animal films?), and cartoon characters will shake their ass and spout off some eye-roller like, “Cats rule and dogs drool!”

Here’s where Yogi Bear is different.  Yogi and Boo Boo make their plea to Ranger Smith to allow them to entertain Jellystone patrons with a musical act.  Yogi signals Boo Boo to press play on an ancient boombox, and the two bears dance around like rank amateurs for about ten seconds before Ranger Smith blows a gasket and stops the music.  Surprisingly, the gag works, and the reason it works is because Yogi Bear is never, ever, not one single time in the film, presented as hip.  He’s a square bear, ripped straight out of 1958 (back when he was very hip, what with his rhyming skills, skinny tie, and relaxed morality about theft) and transplanted directly into 2010.  The gag is not calculated to be cool, but embarrassing, and it is, so it works.

Did I roll in the aisle with laughter?  Never.  Did I smirk?  Yes, and that makes a world of difference with films like these.  As it stands, Yogi Bear is good-natured and silly, which is about all Yogi ever aspired to be as a television star.  The biggest surprise for me was that it wasn’t nearly as painful as the trailers indicated.  Tom Cavanagh (as Ranger Smith) might not be having any fun, but Anna Faris sure is.  So are comedians T.J. Miller and Andrew Daly.  And the one having the most fun of all, and delivering a career-best performance, is Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo, Yogi’s long-suffering confidant and gently nagging voice of reason.  It’s a startling, almost-souful take on the character.  There’s actual humanity in Boo Boo’s eyes, and when coupled with Timberlake’s amazing vocal impersonation of actor Don Messick, it creates one of those rare, fully CG characters that I actually found genuinely warm and believable.

Even as kids, most of us could tell the difference between the really good stuff and disposable entertainment.  At five, I knew that Raiders of the Lost Ark was better than Yogi’s Ark Lark, and I know that the latest Pixar movie is better than Yogi Bear.  Of course, there are a lot of family films out there that are better than Yogi Bear.  But there are also a lot of family films far, far worse than the gently goofy Yogi Bear.  That shouldn’t be misread as faint praise, but a reminder that not everything is calculated to be anything more than what you see right up there on the big screen.  Yogi Bear is disposable entertainment, but I’m so relieved they got the “entertainment” part right this time.

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