Yogi Bear (voice of Dan Aykroyd) is genuinely perplexed by the suggestion that he might want to forage for food and catch fish with his paws. “Isn’t that kind of unsanitary?”
He may live in the woods, but for Yogi, star of the 1960’s series of cartoons from Hanna-Barbera, that does not mean his life has to be bereft of civilization. He has a best friend named Boo Boo with a natty bow tie (voice of Justin Timberlake!). His cave is equipped with a soda machine. He is never seen without his hat, collar, and tie. And he is a well-known aficionado of fine dining. His preferred cuisine is the contents of picnic baskets brought by visitors to Jellystone Park, the campground and nature preserve that is his home. He loves picnic baskets so much, he’s given them an extra syllable, to hold onto the word just a little longer. He calls them “pick-a-nic baskets,” and they are to him what the grail was to Galahad, the whale was to Ahab, and the Road Runner is to Wile E. Coyote.
But to the frustrated Ranger Smith (the always-likable Tom Cavanagh), Yogi’s antics make it impossible for him to have the nice, peaceful, orderly park he dreams of. “There’s no better place on earth,” he sighs, “except without him.” And Smith can’t figure out how to talk to the pretty nature nerd who has arrived to make a documentary about the talking bear in Jellystone Park (the always-adorable Anna Faris as Rachel).
Soon, though, Smith has a bigger problem. The Mayor (slimy Andrew Daly) and his aide (elfin Nathan Corddry) want rescue the city’s budget by privatizing the park and selling off the logging rights. Ranger Smith has just one week to get enough money from increased admissions to the park to save the day.
Yogi Bear began as one segment of the 1958 animated series “Huckleberry Hound.” He quickly eclipsed the other characters, who are all but forgotten (I don’t see “Pixie, Trixie, and Mr. Jinks: The Movie” coming to a multiplex any time soon), and soon became a headliner with his own series. Yogi’s adventures were filled with the same silly slapstick, but he had a special quality that endeared him to kids. They identified with his place midway between the animal world of the forest and Smith’s ultra-civilized world of a uniformed, rule-enforcing (but always-forgiving) grown-up.
Yogi often brags that he is “smarter than the average bear,” but he often outsmarts himself, allowing kids to feel that they are a step ahead of him. As often in comedy, especially for kids, a lot of the humor in cartoons comes from ineptitude and foolishness. Children, who are constantly surrounded by things they do not understand love to see characters who are even more confounded by the world around them. In this film, Yogi may be smart enough to design a flying contraption. But his efforts to persuade Ranger Smith that it is not intended for stealing picnic baskets fails when the Ranger points out that printed across its stern is “Baskitnabber 2000.”
Moments like these are classic Yogi, but it is still an uneven transition to a live-action feature film from the very simplified story-line and animation of a seven-minute hand-drawn cartoon. The running time, computer graphics, and 3D effects overwhelm the slightness of the material, especially when it departs from the core relationship of Yogi and Ranger Smith. The story drags in the middle, when the junior ranger (T.J. Miller), chafing because Ranger Smith won’t let him do anything but sort maps, agrees to sabotage the efforts to keep the park going in exchange for a promotion. Smith’s inept efforts to romance the pretty film-maker are weak and it hardly helps when Yogi offers his advice to Smith about, ahem, marking his territory.
These are what I call “lunchbox movies.” We’ve had a string of big-budget multiplex fodder featuring whatever character was on some studio executive’s second grade lunchbox (Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Inspector Gadget). They toss in some potty humor for the little kids and some boombox oldies to amuse the parents (Sir Mix-a-Lot will be cashing yet another royalty check). But Yogi and his pic-a-nic basket — and the kids and parents looking for a holiday treat — deserve better.
Behind this forgettable trifle are some very talented people, all punching below their weight when they’re not just calling it in. The screenplay is by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”), and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”), based on the 2005 French film, “Anthony Zimmer.” Two of the biggest stars on the planet, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp do their best to put some sizzle in this would-be romantic thriller, but they are both poorly used and have no chemistry whatsoever. Venice is pretty, though.
Jolie is the veddy proper Elise Clifton-Ward, whose role in this film is somewhere between femme fatale (drawing the poor schlub who happens across her path into a world of intrigue and peril) and Girl from Ipanema — she spends a lot of time walking slowly while those she passes say, “Ahhhhhhh.”
Elise receives a note from Alexander Pearce, the man she loves and has not seen for two years, asking her to find a man on the train who resembles him to use as a decoy and distract the various Interpol teams that are trying to track him down. Enter the shlub, a math teacher from Wisconsin so (apparently) incapable of dishonesty that his very name is Frank. And yet, we see him tell a lie very early on. It’s a small one, perhaps understandable, but still….
Elise invites him to spend the night in her lavish hotel suite (on the sofa) and kisses him on the balcony, thus drawing the fire, and the attention, of Interpol and of someone even more bent on tracking Pearce down, the man he stole from. It’s a nice set-up, but the execution depends on three things that never happen: a witty script, a spark between the leading characters, and an understanding of tone. The script sags. Jolie and Depp are both poorly cast (she may be more of a serene and elegant mother earth in her real life these days but on screen she only comes alive when she is aggressive and a little wicked and Depp can do just about anything but act like an ordinary guy). And von Donnersmarck has no sense of humor or lightness to make the sillier aspects of the story endearing instead of annoying. This is yet another example of an American remake of a French film that just misses the fun, the romance, and the point.
One of my favorite films is “That Thing You Do,” written and directed by Tom Hanks. I am thrilled that he has gone back behind the camera again for “Larry Crowne,” scheduled to open this summer, co-written with Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” in which he appears with his “Charlie Wilson’s War” co-star Julia Roberts. And the cast includes Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad,” Taraji P. Henson of “The Karate Kid” and “Date Night,” Pam Grier of “Jackie Brown” and Mr. Sulu himself, George Takei. Can’t wait!