By Matt Smith
Disney’s first Pooh film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, cobbled together out of three adapted tales from the beloved A.A. Milne books, was released theatrically in 1977. In the past thirty years, that work has stood heads and tails above the myriad sequels, television spin-offs and direct-to-video (and theatrical) features. While much of the material until the mid-1990s wasn’t actually that bad, the past decade hasn’t been so kind to these characters, and has diminished the original in some ways. Yet here we are, in 2011, and we are finally given a follow-up movie that doesn’t merely do a good job of not screwing up the legacy of Walt Disney’s famous interpretation of Winnie the Pooh, but actually is worthy of holding shelf space with the original production in one’s personal collection.
Abandoning the slightly disparate structure of the first film (originally released as three shorts, and collected for a feature release with new sequences), the new movie, simply titled Winnie the Pooh, focuses on Pooh’s never ending quest for honey, a search for Eeyor’s tail, and the gang’s attempt to save Christopher Robin from a monster called the Backson. The monster, a typical mangling of genuine knowledge and inability to admit that he’s not always right on the part of Owl, is actually a misreading of a note left by Christopher Robin letting his playmates know he’ll be “back soon.” We are introduced to the monster via song in a sequence that successfully evokes fond memories of “Heffalumps and Woozels” from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day while also building its own memorable monster – innocent and scary, but not too scary – for Pooh’s target audience.
For much of the film’s length, we are treated to wonderfully written character work, with a cast that is more than capable of bringing these characters to life. Pooh aside, I was quite fond of Craig Ferguson’s slightly loopier version of Owl, which succeeds in making a character who always fell on the side of misinformed certainty into a child-like mind, capable of processing a lot of information and putting two and two together, but not always arriving at the proper conclusion. Eeyore is also written very well, and develops his gloomy personality in some small but memorable ways, including a great sequence when the rest of the gang – Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo – try to win a pot of honey by finding him a new tail, and in which they try out just about every item they come across.
My favorite bit, with Pooh suffering hunger pangs and desperately trying to find honey after having spent much of the day baiting the Backson, finds our hero imagining honey pots all over, and the film becomes a dripping, oozing batch of ooey-gooey yellow stuff for a couple of minutes. Pooh swims in honey, finds a honey island, and eats a honey ocean. Frogs are honey pots, and they lash out with their honey-tongues to snag flies. It’s wonderfully imaginative, surreal and is accompanied by a song in which the majority of the words are “honey.”
The animation, presented in 2D, hand-drawn and glorious, is crisp, evocative and timeless. It looks like a movie produced by Disney in the 60s and 70s, and it’s a refreshing change of pace now that every studio (Disney included) has all but abandoned hand-drawn animation in favor of 3D friendly CGI. It also serves the material by giving it a storybook quality, which is sorely missing from some of the creepy and poorly animated CG work that children are subjected to on television and, in some cases, in the realm of feature films – even those produced by major studios (Hoodwinked, Shrek). Winnie the Pooh is also free of thousands of pop-culture references, something that is to be applauded even though this nauseating trend meant to cater to parents has mercifully dwindled in the past few years, and is aimed squarely at children, as it should be.
Much of the film’s enjoyment for the older crowd will no doubt come from nostalgic recollections of the older series of shorts’ storytelling simplicity and essential messages about friendship and courage. The gang are all tasked with undertaking “A Very Important Thing”, and succeed by helping one another and discovering their inner strength. The charm will no doubt also come from the continuity of casting Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh for at least fifteen or twenty years now, and the use of newer versions of some of the trademark songs reinterpreted by Zooey Deschanel into her trademark “cute” collaborations with M. Ward, which ends up working really well. And the handful of new songs are bouncy, fun and performed with great ease by the cast.
The film, which runs for a brisk 70 minutes, is preceded by a wonderful short called The Ballad of Nessie, a practice which was standard for all theatrical exhibitions until the 1970s, and which I’m glad for the small resurgence of thanks to avid Disney fan and Pixar head John Lasseter’s position as the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Anyway, the short tells the story of the Loch Ness monster in a simple rhyming poem, much like classic shorts, and features a character design for Nessie that calls to mind a personal favorite of mine, The Reluctant Dragon. Narrated by Billy Connelly, the short is beautiful itself, and its message – that being sad and even crying is okay and needs to be done in order to deal with some things – is universal.
Winnie the Pooh is an experience worth having in theaters if only to see the characters on the big screen once more in a fashion deserving of such a charming and beloved legacy. It’s not an attempt at cashing in like some of the previous sequels have been, and it doesn’t quite reboot the franchise by ignoring its roots as a series of shorts and a couple of pretty decent follow-up features (I like Pooh’s Heffalump Movie from 2005). If Disney can produce features of this quality (and they have been on the upswing since The Princess and the Frog a couple of years ago), I’ll gladly continue to support them by attending their movies and giving them my hard-earned cash. The movie harkens back to the Disney classics we all know and love from our childhood (and the charming and sly A.A. Milne books), and hopefully will imbue a new generation with a love for its simplicity, strong character design and gorgeous, hand-drawn, 2D animation.