27 December 2012

Disney Daze: Week 51: 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.

1977's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of the most important films in the Walt Disney canon. Not only is it an adorable animated feature with brilliant voice work, wonderful songs, and a surprisingly melancholy air, it was also the nexus point for the global merchandising phenomenon that is Winnie the Pooh. The tubby little cubby is one of the hugest cash cows for the Disney corporation which--considering its treasure chest of properties so deep and wide--is saying a lot. So it is no wonder that the studio decided to commission a new animated feature based on the works of author A.A. Milne. Executive producer John Lasseter said that they wanted to create a film that would "transcend generations". This is in response partly to the company's more recent work which saw the silly old bear cavorting around on television sets in a computer-generated body and wearing a mask like a common burglar. It was also a directive to steer the film away from the kinds of hackneyed choices made by many contemporary animated films, by both Disney and their competitors, to go for cheap jokes, tired clichés, and up-to-the-minute references. 

Winnie the Pooh opens much like the 1977 film by entering a live action bedroom belonging to the young boy Christopher Robin. There we see stuffed animal versions of the Hundred Acre Wood inhabitants. (The credits will inform us that the dolls were provided courtesy of the Disney Store. Synergy!) The camera finally rests on our titular star who sits patiently in a chair with an old book next to him. The tome opens and the upper class British tones of John Cleese begin to narrate our trip back to the home of these cute characters. At this point we get one of the thankfully few and easily the most egregious "updates" to the property as hipster royalty Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward perform a clunky arrangement of the classic Winnie the Pooh theme. Their version sounds like a cross between NPR filler and what I assume a Raffi record sounds like sung by a cool chanteuse.

In fact, the film's most underwhelming element overall is the music, especially when compared with the masterpiece that is Robert and Richard Sherman's soundtrack for the original. Nothing fares as bad as the reworked theme song, in fact Deschanel herself returns later with vocals on a couple of other numbers and she sounds just fine. However, most of the newly written tunes are thin and rather trite. The composers here, married musicians Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez write nothing truly memorable. It is telling that Tigger's brief reprise of his famous theme song is the catchiest thing in the film. Certainly part of this is nostalgia but it is also testament to a heck of a good tune.

The look and feel of the film is nearly identical to the thirty-five-year-old original. The characters live in a stylized forest that recalls the beautiful etchings contained within the book. They also still interact with the book itself, jumping from page to page, talking to the narrator (their very dialogue typed out below them) and in one truly inspired moment, use a letter ladder, made out of the words "letter ladder", to climb their way out of a pit. For all of its celebration of reading and words, however, it is a bit disconcerting how much emphasis the film puts on the characters misspelling words. In the original film, it was endearing to see so many pots scrawled with their own interpretations of the word "honey". In this feature though, nearly every single word on every sign is misspelled. Owl proudly writes T-A-E-L on a chalkboard serving as a makeshift tail for Eeyore, even going so far as to announce each letter as he scratches them on the board.

To be fair, this misunderstanding of words leads to one of the film's greatest sequences when Owl--who for all of his intellectual affectations and rich vocabulary proves himself time and again as the dumbest character in the film--misreads a note from Christopher Robin stating that he will be "back soon" as "Backson". The Backson becomes a horrible monster conjured up by the character's collective imaginations as a beast who makes you sleep late, puts holes in your socks and all other manner of horrible things. Eeyore's chalkboard tail comes into play here as Owl creates an artist's rendering of the creature and the animation adopts a childish pastel chalk design. Paired with the Lopez couple's best song, we get a very fun, imaginative sequence that recalls the original's famed Heffalumps and Woozles section.

Another great reverie in the film occurs when a hungry, hallucinating Pooh starts seeing imaginary honey pots everywhere. Every other word out of his friend's mouths turns into "honey" as well, until he finds himself in a fantastical Busby Berkeley-esque wonderland with flowing rivers, spouting fountains, and dancing Pooh bears all made out of honey. It is reminiscent of the "Malkovich Malkovich" scene in Being John Malkovich which a weird and wonderful thing to say about a Disney film. The scene ends with a dejected Pooh discovering he is just playing in the mud.

The voicework in the film is almost uniformly phenomenal. The greatest praise is due to Jim Cummings, who voices both Tigger and Pooh, somehow managing to perfectly replicate the tones of both very disparate characters. Bud Luckey nails Eeyore's defeated disposition, especially when he tells everyone they're all going to die. Even the celebrity voices such as Cleese and Craig Ferguson's Owl are perfectly integrated into the cinematic world. The only weak spot is Tom "Spongebob" Kenny's voicing of Rabbit which just feels wrong. It fails to captures Rabbit's uptight prissiness.

Like its namesake, Winnie the Pooh is remarkably short. Excluding the charming closing credits that play out over images of the live action stuffed animals posed in scenes from earlier in the film, Winnie the Pooh is less than an hour long. (To pad out the running time, the film was paired with another welcome throwback, the cartoon short The Ballad of Nessie which recalls some of the great Disney work from the 1950s, like Susie the Little Blue Coupe.) Originally the film was to be made up of five Milne stories which would have brought the running time closer to an hour and a half, but it was wisely pared down to just three. The film's brevity is to its strength because the narrative's highly episodic nature can at times feel like it is hanging on by a thread. 

Truly there is something special about a film whose plot hinges on finding a tail for a toy donkey and the closest approximation to a villain is a red ballon. Winnie the Pooh is a delightfully quaint feature with very little to prove. This allows the story to follow its own idyllic little paths and relish the smaller joys of life, be they friendship, imagination, or hunny. I mean, honey. The film does not reach the artistic heights of its forefather, due in part to a twenty-first century sense of rhythm which takes out much of the original film's meditative power thanks to an increased need for shorter cuts. But these are lofty aspirations for a film that doggedly pursues the quieter road. Except when Tiggers are around. 


  1. I really liked this one. Favorite Disney since the first Pooh film.

    1. It's heartening to see that they're still capable of making films like this.