11 June 2012

Disney Daze: Week 22: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a feature that in many respects serves as a book end to an era. It is the last of the fifty-two animated films to be a package picture, comprised of three featurettes, the first of which, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, saw release in 1966. 1966 was the year of Walt Disney's death and this then makes The Many Adventures truly the last picture the company's namesake worked on. He also had a hand in the early development of the second short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day which was released in 1968. Walt had always intended on turning the Pooh shorts into a feature but felt that the American public was not as familiar with the characters as people in the United Kingdom, where Pooh had originated in books by author A. A. Milne in 1926. Therefore U.S. audiences would best be served by introducing the bear and his friends in shorter subjects.

Before we proceed, let us get one thing settled straight away: the Disney conception of Winnie the Pooh is the most adorable creature ever created. The "tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff" as animated by the great Disney artisans and voiced perfectly by the stalwart Sterling Holloway, in his greatest and most iconic role, is like some sort of divine inspiration. Never has a character been so clearly and cleverly adapted into its purest essence than the dim-witted Pooh Bear. As he sits in his thoughtful spot furrowing his brow and tapping his head, concentrating hard on concentrating hard, he brings an immediate smile to one's face. When he pauses on his perambulations to listen to his growling "tumbly", we are instantly delighted. In the abstract it sounds like all too much but there is an essence to Winnie the Pooh that cuts through jaded cynicism and touches our hearts. How's that for treacle?

The film opens in a live action bedroom as we see replicas of the original stuffed animals Milne's son, Christopher Robin, owned that inspired his father's stories. In that grand Disney tradition, the camera settles on a book that magically opens and thrusts us into the story. But here we get the great conceit of using the book's physicality, its corners, edges, and type, as part of the landscape. The characters are constantly hopping from page to page or nearly falling out of the book. Several times we hear them comment on the literary universe they live in. This device helps thread the three featurettes together, treating them as chapters that are read by our narrator Sebastian Cabot. Because of these strung together short subjects, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the epitome of episodic. But unlike most films falling under that rubric, here the chapters do not feel disjointed. Interestingly, the film never feels compelled by narrative drive, it is more about living in the universe depicted onscreen. Sure, things happen but they feel more random--perhaps more organic--than a steady beat from point A to point B.

Because of this lack of traditional plotting, there is no real point in summing up the events and trajectory of the film. It is far more interesting to reflect on the characters, the setting, and the design. After a succession of films that all shared a similar animated aesthetic it is incredibly refreshing to see a unique style on display, something that at one time was not unheard of on the Disney lot. As mentioned above, the character design of Winnie the Pooh has been wholly Disney-fied, but the backgrounds retain the style of the book's original etchings. One can see the hash marks that went into shading a dark corner, and the whole look gives the film a cozier feel. The drawings possess a timeless vibrancy to them and manage to evoke a bygone era, namely childhood. This is the fantasyland of a little boy's imagination and the first comparison I think of is the endless forests that Calvin and his tiger Hobbes spend their summers in, playing games and questioning existence.

The characters inhabiting the Hundred Acre Wood are a diverse menagerie, all representing one particular personality trait or quality. If Pooh is the id, controlled solely by his impulses, Piglet is the superego, all but stifled by his eager aim to please, to be altruistic. Owl is wise and therefore a bit of a bore, while Eeyore is a depressive cynic who sees no hope in even the simplest act of kindness. Rabbit is a fussing fuddy duddy, while Kanga is a sign of warm, matronly love. Her child Roo is curious, an endless fount of inquisitiveness. My favorite character, Gopher, is a beacon of industrious labor, constantly toiling away because it is the only thing that gives him purpose. And then there's Tigger, a boisterous, bouncing ball of energy, the benevolent harbinger of chaos. Tigger is anarchy.

The film gives adequate, if not equal, measure to these characters, never allowing one animal to overstay their welcome. This parceling out of personalities is a very wise move on the filmmakers' part. Tigger, who could most quickly become a nuisance, is delayed an introduction until quite late in the picture, in the second section during the blustery day. Some characters get short shrift, for example Kanga is left to fret over her baby and that's about it. However as characters come and go, not appearing in whole sections of the picture, only to crop up later on, it gives the universe a sense of habitation, wherein we subconsciously acknowledge the existence of life outside the frame, beyond the story at hand. 

One of the great successes of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the stellar soundtrack composed entirely by the Sherman Brothers. Outside of possibly Mary Poppins, the songs contained within are the greatest collection of the brothers' career. The music is inextricably linked with the film and one walks away from a viewing with not one, but several iconic melodies bouncing around in their brain. The songs complement the environment and characters on a level of deep understanding. Above all they respect the material. This might be a bit sacrilegious but the Sherman Brothers' work on Winnie the Pooh is possibly the greatest Disney soundtrack since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While I prefer "Pink Elephants on Parade" to "Heffalumps and Woozles", or Frank Churchill's "Little April Showers" to "The Rain, Rain, Rain, Came Down, Down, Down", the sum of Pooh is an achievement of staggering proportions. It is a both a glorious send off for the brothers, who would not work for the studio for decades after Pooh's release, and a deep shame for the very same reason.

The film ends with a section, that like the wraparound chapter heading segments, was not part of the original featurettes. It is a quiet meditative scene following Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh as they make their way across logs and over rivers through the forest. Christopher tells Pooh that he will not be returning to the Hundred Acre Wood for quite some time because he is being sent off to school. The boy bemoans his encroaching adulthood, declaring that his favorite thing to do is nothing. Adults are always doing something, whereas he and Pooh can just walk about and be. Pooh asks why Christopher must go even though he doesn't want to. It is a scene of incredible poignancy. It works so well because it never once telegraphs its emotions with tears, or swelling music, or pained declarations. There is a resigned air to it all that works all the better for its remarkable restraint. It is in fact one of the most successful endings to a Disney picture. It possesses a maturity that it openly regrets but cannot deny.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh doesn't actually contain much adventure. Basically a bear lusts for honey and will stop at nothing to acquire it. This leads to many amusing moments with a delightful bunch of characters, but little in terms of action and excitement. However, the decisions made on behalf of the animators, writers, and actors, to keep it simple and find a relaxed pace, a lazy rhythm, is a choice that leads to immense satisfaction. As films (especially those aimed at children) perpetually push from one spectacle to another for fear of losing their audience's ever-decreasing attention span, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh casually invites you in for some lunch. Help yourself. That is the most adventurous thing of all. 

1 comment:

  1. I really want to see this again now. You've convinced me that it and not Sleeping Beauty was the last great Disney animated film.