Yogi Bear is pretty bad, but it’s not apocalyptically horrid—and that’s its biggest problem. There are a number of signs that the film could’ve been, um, bearable, but nobody, save maybe Justin Timberlake, whose performance immediately impresses the viewer with its relative thoughtfulness and nuance, seems to have cared enough to try. The film feels rushed; no one, not director Eric Brevig, not the film’s team of three screenwriters, and certainly not the voice and live actors, ever seem like they’re ever on the same page. Timberlake, who plays Yogi’s (Dan Aykroyd) sidekick, Boo-Boo, seems especially lost, acting on a level that suggests he’s not only giving the part his all, but has also given serious thought to how to improve the role as it was written. Yogi Bear’s not the spectacular failure that the film’s wildly inappropriate poster promised—it’s just a garden-variety mess.
No time is wasted introducing the characters to each other. It’s just accepted that Yogi, that famous picnic basket-snatching brown bear, can talk, act, and even dress like a human. To wit, Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh) isn’t surprised when Yogi tries to steal food from Jellystone Park visitors; it’s just what Yogi does, no explanation offered, no questions asked. But nothing else about the film’s plot is that self-assured or cogent. Evil Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly) decides to bail out the city by selling Jellystone’s trees to loggers and it’s up to Yogi, Boo-Boo, Ranger Smith, and the activist Rachel (Anna Faris) to save the day. Initial efforts to do so are stymied after Yogi water-skis while juggling a flaming baton that accidentally sets off a fireworks display that winds up scaring off the patrons that could have saved the park with their donations. This sends Yogi into a 10-minute identity crisis (he hangs up his hat and tie and decides to forage for food like an average bear), but soon regains his composure and decides to help Ranger Smith fight to save the park. That plot hiccup suggests a new direction that the film almost pursues, but it’s ultimately just an odd variation on formula storytelling: The hero screws up, gets discouraged, then uses a makeshift hang-glider to save the day.
The only serviceable aspects of Yogi Bear really only look good when compared to the dearth of charm, consistency, and humor by which the rest of the film is characterized. Brevig’s use of 3D, for instance, probably feels a lot sharper than it might have otherwise, mostly because seeing maggots, soda, trees, and other projectiles fly out at the viewer at odd angles, never head-on, is automatically more exciting than anything else in the film. But many of the jokes feel half-formed: Is the film’s narrator supposed to sound like Morgan Freeman on helium and, more importantly, is Daly supposed to look like a young Adam West? The joke that best exemplifies why the film feels more like an abortive failure than a fully formed one is when Yogi gets his mojo back and exclaims, “Nobody’s going to hurt Jellystone!” You can practically hear Aykroyd adding “…but me,” but he never does. As is, the joke remains only half-realized, requiring a level of attention that nobody, not Aykroyd nor the films’ screenwriters, gave it.