Whether it is all some kind of marketing ploy or a genuine wave of nostalgia triggered by their sudden availability on DVD and retro-themed television channels, everything old is suddenly cool again. From the big-budget blockbusters of the Transformers films and the bafflingly successful Alvin and the Chipmunks films, through to the forthcoming revivals of The Smurfs and The Muppets in 2011, no stone is being left unturned in the quest to relive our collective childhoods and spike t-shirt sales all over the world. Yogi Bear was a character that first appeared on The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, but after gaining his own show in 1961 (The Yogi Bear Show), he and his little pal Boo Boo haven’t looked back. An iconic coupling in the Hanna Barbera stable, Yogi joined the likes of The Wacky Races and The Flintstones, often crossing over in Laff-A-Lympics, Yogi’s Space Race and Yogi Bear & Friends. Despite a few outings here and there, Yogi has remained fairly quiet for several decades…until now.
Yogi (voiced by Dan Aykroyd, Ghostbusters) and Boo Boo (voiced by Justin Timberlake, The Social Network) are two unusual brown bears living in Jellystone National Park. Spending their days concocting elaborate schemes to steal picnic baskets from park guests and testing the patience of park Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanaugh,TV’s Ed), they are soon joined by a documentary filmmaker (Anna Faris, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) who loves the park as much as Ranger Smith. When the corrupt Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly, Eastbound & Down) threatens to close down the park and hand it over to developers, it is up to Ranger Smith, Yogi and Boo Boo to come up with the ultimate plan to save the park.
The marketing for Yogi Bear did not get off to a good start, with the dubious tagline of “Good things come in bears”. The unintentionally suggestive advertising fail may attract a whole new audience to the film, but the target audience here is both the kiddies and those with fond memories of the pic-a-nic basket thief. For all the cries of outrage over updating a beloved childhood classic, it is easy to forget that the original Yogi Bear had a very simple premise of Yogi and Boo Boo trying to steal picnic baskets while evading Ranger Smith. In the feature-length update of Yogi Bear, very little has changed except for the attempt to expand this concept out to 82 minutes. Indeed, the original appearances in The Yogi Bear Show were merely segments of a longer show, that also contained Snagglepuss and the more forgettable Yakky Doodle. So you don’t have to be smarter than the average bear to realise that a movie-length version is going to be a bit of a stretch. Yet in many ways, it is by maintaining these traditional elements is what gives this new film version much of the charm that it does have.
The casting is a little bit bizarre, and while seeing Dan Aykroyd’s name above the title may not turn any heads, the appearance of Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo is initially mind-bending. However, in an age when celebrities simply turn up and play themselves in animated roles, this kind of voice acting is actually quite refreshing. Aykroyd completely captures Daws Butler’s original voice, which in turn was aping Art Carney. Timberlake, who has been going from strength to strength on-screen lately, does a dead-on Boo Boo. Why use such big names when any voice actor probably could have sufficed? It’s a money-making exercise, of course, but their performances actually give real life to the characters. Similarly, the casting of seasoned comic actors Cavanaugh, Faris and Gulliver’s Travels T.J Miller gives a sense of comic timing often missing from kiddie fare such as this. Andrew Daly’s villain, however, looks and acts remarkably like former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. His evil scheme even involves giving $1000 to each of the town’s citizens, mirroring Rudd’s own economic stimulus package. It is probably all coincidence…or is it?
Yogi Bear is reasonably fun and inoffensive, although many of the jokes – not to mention the tacked on environmentalism and romance used to pad out the plot – will whoosh over the kiddie’s heads. Quite talky in parts, possibly to justify the expensive price tags at least one of the headliners would have commanded, the film could have used more hijinks. From some of these crazy schemes at least one of the great gags of the film, a safety instruction manual that is just a picture of Yogi and Boo Boo screaming, emerges. Yogi Bear ultimately could have been so much more: in the attempt to update it for modern audiences, it lost sight of those things that made it great for kids and adults alike. However, if the screams of delight at the physical gags from this reviewer’s audience are anything to go by, the kids are going to love it.
It is also worth mentioning that a short film, a new 3D Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon titled Rabid Rider, accompanies the screening. As with the Coyote Falls Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote short that ran before Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, the short film ahead of the feature is a welcome return to the classic theatrical tradition that Pixar have been keeping alive for the last few years. Much like the feature itself, it gives a modern update to the classic archetypes that could be found in the chases of the original cartoons. Here Wile E. Coyote battles with a Segway people mover, and the physical comedy cleverly plays on the expectations of the audience. For example, when we fully expect the Coyote to get hit by one object, he’ll cleverly avoid it – only to be hit by a truck instead. The use of 3D is also quite splendid, making full use of the stretching and flying objects that have always characterised Chuck Jones-inspired animation. Anybody looking to update classic cartoons would do well to look at director Matthew O’Callaghan’s (Open Season 2, Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas) work on these shorts, which also included Fur of Flying in front of Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole.
Yogi Bear was released by Warner Bros. in Australia on January 13, 2011