That silly ol’ bear is back, and he and all his friends from Hundred Acre Wood are getting into trouble in the most adorable manner. Disney’s Winnie The Pooh brings Pooh Bear back to the big screen while staying true to the simple style and philosophies that make the original stories so timeless. Out in theaters today, Winnie the Pooh is a charming addition to the Pooh collection of animated family films.
Some of you may have fond memories of Winnie the Pooh, the pudgy honey-loving bear introduced in stories by A.A. Milne back in the ‘20s. Disney picked up the rights to the pudgy bear in the ’60s and started cranking out a hugely successful franchise that includes TV shows, feature films, and direct-to-video installments. After making a number of drawn-art animated featurettes in the ‘60s, Disney finally put all the Pooh shorts together in one feature-length film called The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh in the late ‘70s.
Nostalgia aside, Disney has kept true to the original hand-drawn animation style of the the early Winnie the Pooh short features, so this installment in the Pooh franchise isn’t so much a reboot or a modernization (thank goodness), but an authentic addition to a much-beloved animated story series. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall understood the need to keep Pooh old-school, staying true to the original style and art of book illustrator E.H. Shepard. Shepard’s illustrations are the basis of the highly recognizable Winnie the Pooh characters of today. If this film had gone CGI, or tried to “remake” the look of Pooh, I might have cried.
As far as story, Winnie the Pooh takes three of Milne’s short stories and melds them together. Pooh wakes up hungry, and his growling stomach demands he take action. He goes out in search of Christopher Robin, because Christopher is always good for a snack. On the way to Christopher’s he comes across a very gloomy Eeyore, who has lost his tail again. The brainy Owl, who is working on his lengthy memoirs, comes up with a plan.
All of the gang joins in to find Eeyore a new tail, including Kanga and Roo, Rabbit and Piglet, and even Tigger. When they decide to get Christopher Robin involved again, they find he is gone with only a note left behind. Owl reads the note, and announces that Christopher Robin has been taken by a creature called the Backson.
It doesn’t take long for all the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood to imagine the very worst about this creature, and to hatch a plan to capture it by digging a giant hole and luring the Backson into it. Of course, they all end up falling into the pit themselves, which poses a whole new set of problems.
From the opening song, to the interactive illustrations and book lettering, this Winnie the Pooh is a charming experience. The characters are voiced by new talents, of course, and for the most part I thought filmmakers did an excellent job casting. Winnie the Pooh (and Tigger) were voiced by Jim Cummings, a talented and experienced voice actor who has done voices for film, cartoons, and video games. His Pooh was so authentic, and Tigger too, that they both sounded identical to the original characters in the 1977 film. This went far to establish consistency and that feeling of nostalgia.
John Cleese (Monty Python) narrated. I thought he did a great job, though at first I was skeptical. I find he has a very unique voice and cadence, so I assumed his voice narrating would take me out of the story and be detracting. But he read the part well, and his high-British accents fit the mood of the literary portion of the story. Craig Ferguson voiced Owl, and I was thinking along the same lines for him as I was for Cleese. Again, I was happily surprised as I could hardly detect the famed Scottish comedian in Owl’s blustery know-it-all-ness.
The other characters sounded authentic and were close enough to the originals to maintain credibility. That being said, I was disappointed with Eeyore (Bud Luckey), as his interpretation of the always-gloomy donkey seemed overdone, and almost caricatured.
The simple beauty of Winnie the Pooh was enhanced, not weakened, by Disney’s decision to keep this sequel in the traditional drawn-animation style. The animation looked deceptively simple, with drawn characters playing over an anchored background that looked like it was done in gentle watercolors.
The pages of the storybook, as in other installments, plays an important role in the story and actually interacts with the characters in the story. The narrator is also interactive, sometimes talking to Pooh or playing a more involved role than a traditional narrator.
This self-aware element in Winnie The Pooh is a conceit used in all of the films so far, and is one of its greatest charms. The self-referential communication between the characters of the story and the story itself (in the form of narrator and/or the physical words and letters of the book) make it a more intimate and interactive experience for the audience too.
If you haven’t seen an animated Winnie the Pooh adventure, then you might not know what I’m talking about. The animation for the most part is a scene, with the characters placed in it, moving and talking. Sometimes though, one of the characters will start walking and suddenly come to a white space with no background. Then the audience will see the edge of a book page and the words that the narrator is saying written below the scene, with the character still moving along.
Then the character might jump to the other page of the book, or use some of the letters to bounce along on. Or Eeyore’s tail might get caught on a capital letter and start unraveling. It becomes an incredible artistic metaphor, with art and the life of the story working in tandem.
There is a scene with Pooh standing on top of a paragraph and talking to the narrator, asking a question as usual. Eeyore’s tail catches on a letter as he walks off, and as he goes, one sentence after another of the paragraph is pulled off the page after him.
Winnie the Pooh falls into the next page when the paragraph is all gone, and says he wishes that paragraph was longer. It’s those great self-aware literary tools that make Winnie the Pooh such a brilliant animated film and story. It may look like a simple, even cartoonish animated movie, but it’s actually a clever vehicle for literary appreciation and a study of archetypes. Milne himself never read his Pooh stories to his son, and he wrote them not so much for children, but for the child inside every adult.
This version of Winnie the Pooh had the same fantasy segments as the originals, which was a nice surprise. Like many of the early Disney animated classics, the original films had these great bizarre fantasy/dream sequences. Without the use of CGI, the art department behind Winnie the Pooh pulled off a fantastic fantasy segment where Pooh finds himself in a world made of honey. Of course there’s song and dance too, but the animation is amazing considering the translucent quality of the honey world was attained through different paint processes, and not computers.
The only thing that I found really disappointing was the music. The theme song was song by actress Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer), as well as some of the other songs throughout the film. I don’t think much of Deschanel’s voice, and her simple treatment of the themes song was too conservative, and played more like someone humming a tune to herself than the opening song for a film.
Overall, this is a worthy addition to the Winnie the Pooh franchise, and a charming animated film. Disney certainly didn’t drop the ball with this one, and the story can be appreciated by children and adults alike. Even if you’re not a Pooh fan, go see this film if just to appreciate old-school animation at its best.
Winnie the Pooh is a charming addition to the Pooh collection of animated family films.