By the early 60s, animation had largely made the leap from the theaters to the television. Some studios were soldiering on, such as MGM and Warner Bros, but by the end of the decade, nearly all the old guard would be gone. While the transition was an inevitability, it was clear that the ones leading this charge were Hanna-Barbera, who themselves had gotten their start working on the theatrical Tom & Jerry shorts for MGM. It’s then that a certain irony arises that they would eventually return to theatrical animation; The first time was a series called Loopy de Loop, that ran in theaters from 1959 to 1965, but this could be seen as an attempt by the then-new studio to keep one foot in the door in case television didn’t pan out for them (it would be their only such series). But by 1964 they were well established, and it was time to do something unique; Rather than bring the theater to television, they would bring television to the theater, in the first motion picture based on a TV cartoon.
Excluding the Flintstones, Yogi Bear was probably Hanna-Barbera’s biggest name at that time. The character had made his debut as a secondary segment on the Huckleberry Hound Show, but audiences loved his pic-a-nic stealing antics so much that he ended up eclipsing Huckleberry Hound in popularity. Soon, he spun off into his own TV series in 1961 consisting of entirely new shorts, and it was a hit in syndication, lasting for 33 episodes. As the Flintstones was still producing new episodes (it would eventually receive a movie just a few months after the series finale in 1966), when the time came for Columbia Pictures (parent company of H-B’s owners Screen Gems) to approach Hanna-Barbera about producing a film based on one of their shows, Yogi Bear was selected.
"Hey There, It's Yogi Bear"
June 3, 1964
The film starts off much like a normal episode of the TV show. Yogi and Boo Boo wake up from hibernation on the first day of spring, and Yogi quickly gets to work on getting food from the incoming Jellystone campers. He tries posing as a food inspector, using an arrow through a restaurant window, and unleashing trained ants to carry the food. But at every turn, Ranger Smith stops him.
This time, however, Yogi gets so fed up with the constant rules that he decides to offer the Ranger an ultimatum: Either remove the “do not feed the bears” signs from the park or ship him off somewhere else. Yogi intends this choice as a way to guilt him into removing the signs, thinking Ranger Smith would never get rid of him. However, at the same time, the San Diego Zoo calls up asking if the park can give them a bear. So when Yogi strolls in with his offer, Ranger Smith tells the zoo they have a bear available, and marks him for departure.
But as Yogi says his goodbyes to Jellystone, he runs into another bear named Cornpone, who has already claimed Yogi’s cave. Cornhole gets jealous upon hearing Yogi is going to California, so they cut a deal and Cornhole goes in his place. Yogi disappears into the woods to hide, and over the next week begins raiding every campground in the park as the “Brown Phantom”, leaving the park rangers baffled as they thought Yogi was gone. Ranger Smith, fed up with complaints from campers, makes an announcement that whoever the Brown Phantom is will be shipped to the San Diego Zoo.
Cindy Bear, a bear deeply in love with Yogi, hears this and decides to pose as the Brown Phantom to be reunited with him. She manages to convince Ranger Smith that she’s the culprit, but it turned out the San Diego Zoo didn’t need any more bears, so he transferred her to St. Louis without her knowledge. On the train ride to St. Louis, she learns this and becomes overwhelmed with sadness. To make matters worse, in the night after crying herself to sleep, the train shakes and her cage is knocked out of it, leaving her stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Soon after, a greedy circus owner named Grifter Chizzling and his assistant Snivley are driving down the road, lamenting how they’re broke and need a new act. Their dog Mugger (who appears to be an early version of what would become Muttley from “Wacky Races”, complete with the same wheezing laugh) jumps out of their truck, and finds Cindy sleeping in a ditch. He scares her into climbing onto the telephone poles and walking along the wires like a tightrope, which is when the circus owner sees her and decides to capture her for his newest act.
Yogi, still in hiding, begins to realize his own feelings for Cindy, so he decides to admit to Ranger Smith that he never went to San Diego, in hopes of clearing things up and letting him stay. But he overhears a phone call from the St. Louis Zoo about Cindy’s cage going overboard, so, grabbing Boo Boo and locking Ranger Smith in a closet, Yogi goes on a roadtrip to find Cindy. Through a number of mishaps getting transportation, they’re eventually able to make it to a town, in time for a big circus parade.
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It’s there that they see a poster for the circus, promoting Cindy as their newest star. Arriving at the circus, Yogi sneaks in posing as a clown and learns that Cindy is being held prisoner. He attempts to convince Chizzling to let her leave, but he instead traps him in a cage as well, thinking that two performing bears will bring in twice the money. While Chizzling and Snivley sleep, Boo Boo jumps in to rescue Yogi and Cindy, and the three make their escape into the night.
The trio make their way through the countryside, eventually becoming the target for a sheriff and a bunch of farmers with guns. At a rest stop, they board a truck labeled “Rocky Mountain Van Lines”, thinking it’ll take them in the direction of the Rocky Mountains, and by extension Jellystone.
However, when they awaken the next morning, they find themselves in the middle of an intersection in New York City. After frightening a group of subway passengers, the police begin chasing them, until they arrive in a construction area atop an unfinished building. Across the country, a live news report is seen on TV with footage of the bears on the building, with Yogi giving a shout-out to Ranger Smith and Jellystone Park. Despite his blunder of letting three bears escape the park going public will likely cost him his job, Ranger Smith takes a helicopter to New York, determined to get the bears back.
He arrives and begins negotiating with Yogi, eventually arriving at the decision for everything to go back to how it was before. On the way home, Ranger Smith receives a call from his boss, who tells him that the publicity generated by Yogi’s stunt was so positive that he’s been promoted to Chief Ranger of Jellystone. They sing a refrain of “Whistle Your Way Back Home” (sung earlier during their trip through the countryside) and fly off into the sunset.
A First for Hanna-Barbera and for Animation
“Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear!” was initially announced in June 1963 as “Whistle Your Way Back Home”, titled after one of the film’s songs. That working title was actually referenced to in the December 1st, 1963 installment of the Yogi Bear newspaper comic, in a strip which portrayed a “behind the scenes” look at the production of the then-upcoming film. This same comic would also be used to help promote the film, in a storyline lasting three months from late May to late August of 1964, about an agent scouting Yogi Bear for a movie and the ensuing hijinks of Yogi in Hollywood. At some point prior to release, the title was changed to “Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear”, most likely for name recognition.
The film’s timing, animation-wise, worked out well for keeping several animators employed. This was right around the time that the large studios, namely Warner Bros, were axing their animation departments. When Warner Bros closed down its cartoon studio in May 1963, many of its animators were hired by Hanna-Barbera to work on this film, including Fritz Freleng (who worked as story supervisor).
Returning from the TV series to voice their roles were Daws Butler (Yogi Bear), Don Messick (Boo Boo and Ranger Smith), and Julie Bennett (Cindy Bear). Also featured were Mel Blanc (Chizzling), J. Pat O’Malley (Snivley), as well as Hal Smith, Allan Melvin, Jean Vander Pyl, and Thurl Ravenscroft voicing additional characters. For the songs, they got singers Bill Lee, Earnest Newton, Jackie Ward, and James Darren (leading to a gag where Boo Boo complements Yogi on how he “sings just like James Darren”).
One notable aspect of this movie from the perspective of the Yogi Bear series is the debut of the iconic design for Cindy Bear. Her previous appearances on “The Yogi Bear Show” depicted a self-centered bear who looked strikingly similar to Yogi, except with blue fur. For the film, she was given a more unique design, including light grey-beige fur, and a more gentle personality to match. From this point forward in all merchandise and later TV series, Cindy would retain this redesign.
Upon release, reviews were generally positive, with a review in Variety saying it was "artistically accomplished in all departments", and the songs were “pleasant, if not especially distinguished". It was also praised for coming at a time when there were no other animated features being released; Indeed, “Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear!” was the only first-run animated feature to receive a wide US release in 1964. As a result, it was very popular during its extended summer matinee run. Years down the line in 1986, it was rereleased into theaters by Atlantic Entertainment as part of their “Clubhouse Pictures” program (which included some edits seen in syndicated prints).
As a film, “Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear!” feels largely like a multi-part TV story with a somewhat higher budget, complete with clear act breaks. But it’s an important milestone, both as the Hanna-Barbera studio’s first theatrical film, and the first animated film based on a TV series. The film would help keep Yogi Bear in the public consciousness, leading to numerous reappearances throughout the 70s and 80s, and the work the studio did on this film would prepare them for their next one, with a big-screen finale to the modern stone age family, in 1966’s “The Man Called Flintstone”.