'Open Season'


Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher may seem like an odd-sounding comedy team, but in some weird way, they click as voice-actors and cartoon buddies in "Open Season," the first feature from Sony Pictures Animation. It's a movie that kids will probably like, but that may rightly exasperate hard-core hunters and "Field & Stream" subscribers.

"Season" starts out as a back-to-nature comedy about a big, fuzzy hipster of a domesticated grizzly bear, Boog (Lawrence) who's been sent back to the wilderness for misbehavior--getting drunk and trashing a convenience store--by his loving and regretful "mama," winsome forest ranger Beth (Debra Messing). Boog has led a fat and sassy dream life in Beth's town, Timberline, as a show-biz bear, but he gets exiled along with his fast talking, one-horned mule deer cohort and all-around bad influence Elliot (Kutcher), who keeps leading him astray for the entire movie.

So the two roam, squabble and bicker like a furry Martin and Lewis, or the gang in "Ice Age." Midway through though, "Open Season" turns into an animals-vs.-hunters tale about lovable forest creatures banding together and fighting back the wave of humans that descend on them every year like locusts outfitted by L.L. Bean. The last half of the movie plays like "Bambi's Revenge," or the forest critter version of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," told from a bird's-eye view.

Led by Boog and Elliot, a battalion of ferocious squirrels, rambunctious skunks, rampaging deer, a wacky duck and busy little beavers with chainsaws all set aside their differences and explode into revolt, attacking the crass, heavily-armed hunters.Most visible and obnoxious of the gun-toters is a snarling brute named Shaw (Gary Sinise, in his sadist mode), a maniac with a cabin full of mounted animal heads, who looks and acts like a mix of Paul Bunyan, Jack the Ripper and Bluto from the "Popeye" cartoons. There's also bossy tourist wife Bobbie, a Jennifer Tilly type voiced by Georgia Engel of the classic TV "Mary Tyler Moore Show."

As for the critters, after Boog and Elliot, the most notable are the mad Scots squirrel-general McSquizzy (the right role for Billy Connolly of "Mrs. Brown"), Elliot's dream girl deer Giselle (Jane Krakowski), his arrogant, fully antlered rival Ian (cartoon regular Patrick Warburton) and blue-collar beaver boss Reilly (Jon Favreau).

The movie has a quasi-hip air; the original songs are by the Replacements' Paul Westerberg. And technically, it's often a marvel. "Open Season" is a computer-animated film with lots of three-dimensional effects and detail, but with a stark visual style that also owes something to the artsy, minimalist look of the UPA cartoons of the '50s with Gerald McBoing Boing or Mr. Magoo.

The directors, Jill Culton (from Pixar) and Roger Allers ("The Lion King") and co-director Anthony Stacchi, try a lot of tricks here--such as the frequent Tex Avery-ish bash-the-bunnies jokes--and they've given the movie the casual visual virtuosity that marks a lot of post-"Little Mermaid" feature cartoons. But they're sometimes let down by the script--which is unoriginal and tends to wander all over the woods.

That meandering script comes from an original story by "In the Bleachers" cartoonist Steve Moore and John Carls, who also executive produced. Stacchi and Culton worked on the story too, along with official scenarists Nat Mauldin (famed cartoonist Bill's son), and Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman, co-writers of "Brother Bear" and "Chicken Little." And, though it seems funny to say it, the scenario is a little too ambitious. It depends on a moral development in Boog and Elliot we can't see, and on too abrupt a switch from buddy trek comedy to fable of wildlife revolution.

Though the chemistry works in the end, it's still a bit odd to hear dreamboat Kutcher in the gabby sidekick part that would usually be played by a star comic--the kind of smart-alecky role played by Eddie Murphy as Elliot's seeming inspiration, the donkey in "Shrek." Kutcher isn't bad, but he's sometimes too obvious, as is Sinise. That leaves the comedy honors here to Lawrence and Connolly. They're no Mel Blancs, but they get their laughs.

And though "Open Season" is no "Shrek" or "Ice Age," it gets laughs too. It's capable of giving at least the kid part of the audience a good hunter-trashing, bunny-bashing time.

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