The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Mirror Mirror (1990)

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three star

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Every now and then a great celebrity name like a Rip Torn or a Royalty Hightower will jump out at you as a kind of artform unto itself, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a name quite like Rainbow Harvest before. Ms. Harvest was an actress & a public figure for a brief stretch in the early 90s, making something of a career out of vaguely resembling Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice. At least, that’s the most I can gather from Google Image searches & her lead role in the 1990 horror cheapie Mirror Mirror. In a sea of 90s-era pastel prairie dresses & loose, faded blue jeans, Rainbow Harvest stands out vividly as a goth teen who lives every day like it’s Halloween. I can’t say there’s anything particularly exceptional about her performance in Mirror Mirror, but it is exceedingly difficult to take your eyes off her and her name alone ensures you’ll never forget who she is.

If there’s anything especially interesting about Mirror Mirror‘s narrative it’s that it telegraphs the basic elements of two superior horror movies that would follow years after its arrival: Oculus & The Craft. A goth teen arrives in a new town with a dead dad and an excess of angst. Feeling like a total outsider, she finds solace in newfound friends that grant her dangerous witchcraft powers that allow her to enact petty revenge on her bullies. Where Mirror Mirror deviates from The Craft is that this goth teen’s black magic friendships are with an evil antique mirror and the demon who lives inside it, recalling the basic premise of Oculus. Of course, our goth girl antihero’s new powers backfire and her casual evocation of the mirror demon snowballs in a dangerous, deadly way. The only thing that subverts what you might expect from this Oculus vs. The Craft plot mashup is a supernatural twist ending that acts as a last minute rug pull. I guess there’s also a slight novelty to the outsider teen being bullied actually being the real monster in a story like this, but teen girls are punished for transgressing outside the bounds of their limited agency all the time in film, so that aspect ultimately feels like par for the course.

Mirror Mirror is a decidedly minor work despite those narrative prototypes for better horror films to follow, but it’s charming enough in its smaller details to stand out as an entertaining trifle. The very idea of dark mirror realm magic has a dream logic charm to it that leads to some inventive teen bully kills. As the mirror oozes blood & covers itself with flies, its victims similarly bleed and swat away pests. There are plenty of horror films where girls are killed in showers, but this is the first I’ve seen where girls are killed by a shower, not to mention at the hands of an off-screen mirror demon. Speaking of the demon, my favorite scene in Mirror Mirror is a ludicrous moment if morbid teen narcissism where Rainbow Harvest makes out with her own reflection, Neon Demon style, and the devil’s hand extends from behind the glass to feel her up. It’s wildly over-the-top stuff the film could’ve used more of. Mirror Mirror also could’ve used more of actors like Karen Black (extending her horror resume beyond titles like Trilogy of Terror, Burnt Offerings, and Invaders from Mars & curiously trying on a new wig every few scenes) & Steven Tobolowsky (a That Guy! type most recognizable from his insurance salesman role in Groundhog Day) to add an air of legitimacy to what often feels like straight-to-VHS schlock.

I still found the movie enjoyable overall, though. It’s at least 20 minutes overlong for what it accomplishes, but it boasts enough inventive kills, 90s fashion quirks, and trippy plot twists in its goth girl/antique mirror buddy picture premise to remain a delight. I’d be a liar, though, if I didn’t admit that the most memorable aspect of Mirror Mirror was the real-life name of its star. Rainbow Harvest will likely stick with me as a celebrity for far longer than anything she actually did in-character. It’s the kind of name that is a work of art all on its own.

-Brandon Ledet