Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Disney's latest effort in brand-mining, Tomorrowland, takes the name (if nothing else) from one of the most famous attractions at Disney's various theme parks. Journey with me back to the beginning of this particular game.

The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset.
-H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

The Country Bears goes wrong fast, and it goes wrong hard. The film's opening scene is a concert in 1991, the final one given by the titular group before their inglorious retirement, and every last thing about it conspires to be as hideous in combination as remotely possible - the lighting is perfectly designed to accentuate everything that looks horrible about the main characters. For the main characters are people in extraordinarily complex bear costumes with state-of-the-art puppetry faces. And the first time we see them, they look like there was no room left in Hell, and so it began to vomit forth the dead.

Setting aside the ursine abominations inhabiting all the main roles - though we cannot help but return to them later - The Country Bears is a disgusting moral failure of a different sort. This is, depending on the exact set of definitions you want to use,* the very first movie released by the Walt Disney Company as a tie-in promotion to one of its theme park attractions. This was back in 2002, when the company's film division was starting to lose its way again after roaring back to life in the early 1990s, and any terrible idea that could plausibly be defended as a branding exercise could make it through the gates. 50 weeks and two movies later, this misbegotten experiment would finally result in a critical and commercial success, with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; but before that happened Disney had to embarrass itself a couple of times (The Haunted Mansion was the second effort; I haven't seen it, but the rumor is that it's the worst of the trio).

Really, though, calling The Country Bears an embarrassment is being nice (and also a shameful waste of a pun: it's a veritable embearassment!!!!!). This a stare into the black void of corporate shamelessness and inartistic savagery, a movie whose technologically audacious and unforgivably off-putting animatronic bears are merely the most visible example of the movie's overriding lack of anything beautiful or interesting. The story the producers settled on - Mark Perez is the credited writer and Peter Hastings directed (an animation story artist making his solitary theatrical film), but it hardly seems fair to blame them for getting their names slathered on what's unambiguously a company affair first and foremost - is as musty as it gets, trading on the sadly too-common belief that if you're making a movie for kids, you can get away with any number of clichés, since your pre-teen target audience hasn't encountered them yet. Herein, Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment, sung by Elizabeth Daily, physically performed by Misty Rosas and Alice Dinnean - this is going to turn into an all-parenthetical review if I keep up like this, so let's just acknowledge that the bears were all played by puppeteers working their asses off), a tween bear adopted by humans, has started to feel the pain of being different, goaded by his dick adopted brother Dex (Eli Marienthal). So he runs away to make a pilgrimage to Country Bear Hall, the home of his beloved Country Bears before they disbanded eleven years ago. I allowed myself to assume from the dates that it might turn out that one of the Bears would prove to have fathered Beary, because I somehow managed to expect that this would at least invest itself in some fancier dumb clichés.

Country Bear Hall is, alas, about to be torn down by the over-enthusiastic (human) developer Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken, in the role that exemplifies the "can't say no to a paying job" aspect of his career). But Beary has a great idea: if the Bears get back together for a benefit concert, surely the hall's owner and the band's manager, Henry Dixon Taylor (Kevin Michael Richardson) could raise the $20,000 to save the historic site. So the two of them go on a road trip to recruit the divided bears: brothers Ted and Fred Bedderhead (Diedrich Bader and Brad Garrett), Zeb Zoober (Stephen Root), Tennessee O'Neal (Toby Huss), and Trixie St. Claire (Candy Ford). Given that all of them are suffering som kind of enormous dysfunction and bad blood lies between many of them individually, this proves to be most difficult task. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't prove insurmountable, because this is a Disney picture.

The absurdly insipid, pedestrian storytelling could never have resulted in a movie worth keeping, though it's honestly the strongest thing about The Country Bears; hoary, trite stereotypes at least have the benefit of being road-tested. Even without leaving the writing, the characters are a much bigger liability, being as they are a collection of cheap redneck jokes weirdly sanitised for the sake of the kids who make up the sole audience that can be honestly supposed to enjoy this. The actors are totally helpless to combat this problem, owing in no small part to the tripartite acting (voice, body, face). Frequently throughout, and especially in the critical case of Beary, there's no obvious relationship between the physical performance and the line readings, and it makes the characters feel like emotionless monsters, even without accounting for the terrifying design and execution of the bear suits. They do not provide any illusion that they're connected to the story at all, simply floating through the world without interacting with it except arrhythmically, in the fashion of an alien being clumsily mimicking human behavior.

But let's go ahead and account for the bear costumes, anyway. They are marvels, produced by the Jim Henson Creature Shop and clearly serving to show off that company's best and brightest doing some of the most complex work imaginable. The bears have incredibly precise, flexible, nuanced faces; it's always possible to tell exactly what they're thinking just from a still image. But even so, they are pure, high octane nightmare fuel, the spiritual heirs to the four-year-old talking and walking snowman that the Creature Shop built for Jack Frost. The bears aren't quite as viscerally unacceptable as that character - bears, after all, exist in the world, and even at their most grotesquely malformed, none of them have any feature as individually upsetting as Jack Frost's arms. But dear God, I do not like to look at them. Their heads are all weirdly big for their bodies, and they look not quite like bears, even less than the original audio-animatronic creatures in the Disney attraction. Incidentally, I won't have a better moment to compare the movie to the show; as a Disney parks lifer, The Country Bears strikes me as a most generic and soulless attempt to spin off the Country Bear Jamboree (it's not clear at all from the script, but I think we're meant to understand the movie as a kind of sequel to the show; though it is a sequel from an alternate universe). The big problem is the music: the show has a soundtrack made up of goofy bluegrass music on the '50s model, the movie is larded up with that godawful country rock that started to become popular in the late 1990s, taking the folksy heart out of the whole genre of music. Another problem is ineptness: giving fan favorite Big Al (James Gammon) a slot in the film, and denying him his fan-favorite song? Shoddy multi-platform synergy, that. And for Christ's sake, not including the talking mounted game heads in any capacity is just proving that you didn't wanted to make a movie from this material in the first place.

I had not finished my low-grade freakout over the bear designs, though; hadn't even gotten to the worst part. Which is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, their tremendously detailed, realistic mouths, with their incredibly specific teeth and almost tangibly damp tongues. And somehow, Hastings always seems to make them the centerpoint of every close-up. David Cronenberg couldn't have put more unsettling organic terrors into a movie if his life depended on it.

The film was a disaster at the box office, proving that sometimes we do live in a just universe. I feel sorry for the Creature Shop folks, honestly: the bears are miraculous machines, ugly or not. But they had the misfortune to show up in a badly-written and cloddishly-directed exercise in corporate intra-marketing. This is a commercial, and it's a remarkably bad one; and with Beary proving to be such an awful protagonist, alienating in every way, it's even worse as an inspirational tale of believing in your dreams and sticking by family, in various more or less figurative senses of that word. I would say that, if there were justice, this would have brutally murdered Disney's attempt to make movies out of theme park rides, but then, the first Pirates is at least worth the indignity of The Country Bears. And, indeed, the first Pirates - hell, all four Pirateses - seems that much more precious in light of how utterly craven and artistically uninspired its peculiar subgenre can so depressingly prove to be.