"Open Season" is a rambunctious blast. It's Sony Pictures Animation's first full-length feature film, and no effort was spared getting it right.
The voice cast is talented, the script is as strong and straightforward as a good Disney or Pixar yarn, and the visuals are so well-designed and dazzling that they're occasionally distracting. It doesn't feel like something tossed off for kids by condescending adults, but like a charmed project that appealed to the child inside every one of the grown-ups involved.
The set-up is fairly familiar, a story of animals without many wilderness survival skills teaming up to outwit hunters. The execution, however, is pretty close to flawless.
Boog (voiced by Martin Lawrence) is a domesticated grizzly bear whose trainer, park ranger Beth (Debra Messing) presents him as the star attraction of their mountain town's nature show. Raised with cuddly toys, regular meals, constant doting attention and indoor plumbing, he's completely unprepared for forest life when Beth regretfully returns him to his natural habitat. Boog forms a reluctant partnership with Elliot (Ashton Kutcher), a pesky deer who promises to be his guide through the woods, a pledge that's put to the test when squadrons of humans start shooting at them.
This is a movie where everything is in proportion. The animation balances zany, exaggerated character design against photorealistic surface textures - you can almost feel the coarse density of the animals' fur. The tone is sweetly silly, but there are great eruptions of crude humor (watch for the scene where the horrified nature show audience thinks Boog is clawing Elliott).
There's a bit of pop culture topicality with Starbucks jokes, but also eternally funny poop jokes that will tickle 7-year-olds in 2059. The running gags run just long enough, the cast is deep enough so none of the characters goes stale with too much screen time, and the action pauses every now and then to give us a breather and let the animators show off the pretty pictures they can make. It's a confident film that will pause every once in a while and say, "Hey, look at this. Did you ever see anything so gorgeous?"
Open Season ***
It's too bad that "Open Season" is coming out now, at the end of a year that saw a flock of animated flicks about smart-alecky talking animals. This debut offering from Sony Pictures Animation - about a tame bear (voiced by Martin Lawrence) sent back to woods - has a giddy energy about it and a gleeful sense of its own weirdness.
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The film even has a dash of deeper meaning. The classic family cartoons are those that reach the hearts of kids and adults alike, with stories about growing up, gaining independence, leaving the nest. "Open Season" touches on those topics sensitively, enriching the story without tumbling into saccharine sentimentality.
If you prefer to focus on the laughs, "Open Season" will keep you very busy indeed. The finale, where all creatures great and small band together to fight off gun-toting humans, is a rat-a-tat slapstick anarchy. None of the animals is captured, but your heart and funnybone almost certainly will be.