Rating: 4/4 stars
Yogi Bear is surely one of the most subversive and intelligent children’s films ever made. There, I said it. I don’t care if I am attacked by the many film critics who awarded this movie a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, because these critics missed the point. Yogi Bear is not an uninspired children’s flick; it’s a scathing, politically savvy takedown of the capitalist structures that abuse the natural world.
One of the earliest signs that Yogi Bear is a once-in-a-generation picture comes in the first minute of the movie. We see a sign telling us that the celebrated Jellystone Park is the “Home of Yogi Bear.” Yet despite the fact that the general public seems to be aware of Yogi’s existence – and the head ranger (played by Tom Cavanaugh) has conversed with both Yogi and Boo-Boo – Jellystone is not bustling with people. The fact that the public ignores such a significant phenomenon is clearly meant to convey humanity’s diminishing capacity to be moved by the natural world, and specifically indict Americans for the falling attendance in our parks.
Jellystone’s attendance woes attract the attention of the campaigning Mayor Brown, who wants to shut down Jellystone and give loggers free rein in an effort to create revenue for his nearly-bankrupt city. The fact that the mayor’s name is “Brown” should not be lost on the viewer, because Yogi and Boo-Boo are what kind of bears? Brown bears. Yet while Mayor Brown tries to strip Jellystone of its natural resources, Yogi and Boo-Boo attempt to save their habitat. It’s brilliantly subtle, but here, the writers of Yogi Bear use the Mayor’s carefully chosen name – as well as Yogi and Boo-Boo’s decidedly human fashion senses – to draw a connection between our protagonists and the villain in order to ask a simple – yet deeply profound – question: Who possesses more humanity – bear or man?
In my humble opinion, Yogi and Boo-Boo are the most human characters. With that said, some of the actual human characters do not lag far behind. For his part, Cavanaugh’s Ranger Smith teams up with Rachel (Anna Faris), a documentary filmmaker (and eventual love interest) who becomes wrapped up in Cavanaugh’s crusade to defend Jellystone. Rachel’s profession is a neat touch, one which I contend is meant to signal to the audience that the power of film can foster informed citizens and galvanize society to fight for what’s right.
Unfortunately, Yogi and Boo-Boo accidentally create a fireworks fiasco during one of Jellystone’s festivals, and the park is shut down. As Smith is relegated to the polluted, painfully small Evergreen Park, a despondent Yogi engages in self-flagellation and tries to act like a normal bear. However, Yogi is eventually shaken out of his funk by Boo-Boo, who tells Yogi to pull himself together. This is the emotional crux of the movie, and it’s downright inspiring. At this moment, Boo-Boo’s intervention expresses to the audience that in order to achieve this triumphant moment, in order to better the environment, the youth will need to be courageous and take a stand against their elders.
Near the end of the picture, Yogi, Boo-Boo, and the rest of our heroes discover the existence of the endangered frog-mouthed turtle and use its endangered status to legally stymie the government’s attempts to condemn Jellystone to deforestation. Here, Yogi Bear proves once again that it’s chock-full of deliberate symbolism through the decision to have a turtle save the day. Although it may go unnoticed by the casual filmgoer, the more discerning cinephile will recognize that the turtle symbolizes the fact that true change takes time, that conservation efforts are slow-going — like a turtle – and yet, as the ending of Yogi Bear demonstrates, undoubtedly noble.
Still, Yogi Bear’s thematic unity would be all for naught if the movie was not emotionally resonant. Thankfully, Yogi Bear is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen. The cast gives universally fantastic performances; Cavanaugh is especially brilliant as the jaded Ranger Smith. When you see him in this movie, you really feel that he is dead inside. And when Smith, stuck at Evergreen Park, angrily tells Yogi that he’s “not as smart as he thinks,” we weep because we know that the Ranger is lashing out at Yogi’s formidable intelligence, which has been a central part of Yogi’s identity for over half a century.
I hope that Yogi Bear joins the ranks of films like Blade Runner or Starship Troopers, films that were misunderstood upon release but later received the acclaim that they so richly deserved. At the risk of hyperbole, Yogi Bear deserves to be heralded as one of cinema’s great achievements. It is much, much smarter than your average movie.