One of the earliest memories I have of me inside a movie theater involves “Winnie The Pooh and Tigger Too,” the 1974 short subject that I saw with my folks in front of “The Island At The Top Of The World.” I was already familiar with the characters from books my parents had in the house, and watching them come to life onscreen was magical. A few years later, all of the “Pooh” short subjects were put together as a feature film called “The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh,” and even though that was the same year I discovered “Star Wars” and some slightly more adult thrills in the theater, there is no denying the impact that Disney’s handling of the A.A. Milne characters had on me.
Even compared to other films on the Disney continuum, the “Pooh” films have always been more gentle, more quiet, more deliberately paced. They are an accurate representation of the mood and character of Milne’s work, which is wonderful precisely because of how gentle it is. The biggest drama in the world of the Hundred Acre Wood is based on misunderstandings or misreadings, and never because of villains or threats or anything upsetting. Ultimately, these are the games played by a young boy with his stuffed animals, and they are meant to skew young. This is one of the safest brands in family entertainment, and it’s been a while since Disney gave these characters to their A-team of animators and gave a “Pooh” film a proper theatrical release, and considering the major legal battles they’ve waged to maintain control of the characters, it’s about time they gave it another try.
One nice bit of creative continuity between the original “Pooh” films and this one is the involvement of Burny Mattinson, who has been part of the Disney company since 1953, apprenticed to the Nine Old Men, the animators who were the original legends at the studio. Burny was part of the team who first brought “Pooh” to the screen back in 1966, and having him serve here as the lead in the story department means this is directly connected to those films, even though you can feel the subtle influence of modern trends in studio animation pushing in at the edges of the film. I respect the attempt to keep this consistent, and I think it’ll be interesting to see how audiences respond to it. Is there still room for something this sweet and soft in a world where frantic and fast-paced is the currency of the day?
The film, scripted by Stephen J. Anderson, Clio Chiang, Don Dougherty, Don Hall, Brian Kesinger, Nicole Mitchell, and Jeremy Spears, draws on two of the classic Milne stories, combining them into one eventful day for the Bear Of Very Little Brain. Eeyore loses his tail, leading to a group effort to find a new one for him, and when Christopher Robin goes out and leave a note that Owl reads incorrectly, panic ensues. It’s that simple. Along the way, there are a few songs, the characters end up interacting with the text from the story in some very silly ways, and Pooh thinks about honey. A lot. Even when the characters are at their most worked up, it’s sort of low-key and silly.
And while these are still definitely the characters we’ve gotten to know over the last 40 years, there have been some subtle changes, and a few characters got short-changed in the process. In particular, I think they got Rabbit really wrong here. It seems like they were determined to smooth off the few rough edges that these characters had, but one of the things that Milne did well was express different sides of any person in these characters, all of which are parts of Christopher Robin. And we all have that prickly persnickety side, which he always represented so well. Seeing them sand that down to nothing is a mild disappointment, but that’s something you’d really only notice if you grew up with the characters as I did. I also feel like one of the most charming relationships in these films is between Pooh and Piglet, and that’s downplayed dramatically here. Piglet almost feels like a background character except for a few moments, and that dynamic is missed.
The film does a nice job of touching on the stylistic details that have always been part of the movies, and there is a familiar feeling to the entire thing. The design of the world is all watercolor and lovely, and it’s a world I like slipping back into. I do wonder how parents are going to feel about the film’s 74 minute running time, and even with a short subject attached, it’s a quick trip to the theater. “The Ballad Of Nessie,” narrated by Billy Connolly, is a charming little short that tells the story of how Nessie found a home in Scotland, and it definitely looks and feels like Disney. All told, this is as potent a nostalgia machine as “Super 8” was this summer, but delivers pretty much exactly what’s promised. The main song in the film, written by Richard and Robert Sherman, is performed here by Zooey Deschanel, and it’s a perfect fit. She sounds like she’s really enjoying the job, too. There are six new songs here by Robert Lopez (a Tony winner for “Avenue Q” and “The Book Of Mormon”) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and they fit in well. It’s a compliment to say that a song like the Sherman’s “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers” can exist right next to the new songs and sound like they are of a piece. At the close of the film, there’s a new song by Deschanel and M. Ward, her partner in She & Him, and “So Long” is a very sweet addition to the “Pooh” legacy.
In terms of performance, I don’t envy anyone who has to follow up the guys who defined the sound of these characters for so many years. Sterling Holloway is so firmly burnt into my brain as the voice of Pooh that it’s sort of like when I hear anyone but Jim Henson doing the voice of Kermit. I think Jim Cummings does a good job of stepping into the character, and considering he also plays Tigger, he does a good job of playing some real range. Bud Luckey, probably best known recently as the narrator for the Pixar short “Boundin’,” is a nice choice as the new Eeyore, and he probably scores the biggest laughs in the movie. Craig Ferguson does good work as Owl, and he really plays the character, not just relying on his own voice. The weirdest choice in the entire film involves California celebrity Huell Howser, and all I’ll say about that is you should stay to the last moment, after all the credits, just to witness the lunacy.
In the end, directors Steve Anderson and Don Hall should be pleased that they have honored one of the most important legacies in the company’s history, and I think parents, especially ones with very young kids, should feel confident in taking them to see this new generation “Pooh.” It’s not my favorite film with the characters, but it’s a nice step up, artistically, from the direct-to-video hell where they’ve been trapped for the last few decades.
“Winnie The Pooh” opens in theaters everywhere July 15, 2011.