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Disney Sundays: Winnie the Pooh (2011)


         As you may recall, I really liked Winnie the Pooh when I was really little. The timeless stories and characters, the lush atmosphere of the Hundred Acre Wood, and the simplicity of it all was very endearing. And apparently its effect was similar for enough other kids of my generation and younger, that Disney’s 2011 Winnie the Pooh reboot WASN’T the first theatrical Winnie the Pooh film released in my lifetime. Yes, I remember The Tigger Movie, and hearing about Piglet’s Big Movie, and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. But it’s astonishing that the best of the Winnie the Pooh movies since the original, Pooh’s Grand Adventure, wasn’t released theatrically when all these others were. That’s the film that as strange as it sounds, got kinda dark and scary for kids by putting the characters in actual peril on a quest into the unknown. And I loved it! I bring it up because 2011’s Winnie the Pooh is clearly borrowing from it.
          Not the whole film, but one storyline is directly stealing from Pooh’s Grand Adventure. However for the most part, the film is a reboot of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, acting as an introduction to this world and characters for a new generation of children. The set-up as you’d expect follows the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood and their various day-to-day activities. Recurring threads throughout include a hunt for the “Backson”, a creature they believe has kidnapped Christopher Robin, and Pooh’s own attempts to quench his hunger by getting some honey.
          So if you’re wondering, it’s the “Backson” segment. The idea of the Winnie the Pooh characters attempting to save Christopher Robin from a mysterious threat due to Owl misreading a word, is the central premise of Pooh’s Grand Adventure right down to Owl leading them in a rousing song in preparation for the quest. The film does feel like it’s trying to pass off this neat story idea as its own, similar to what the Scooby-Doo movie did with Zombie Island (however this movie doesn’t handle it nearly as poorly as that one). Unlike Pooh’s Grand Adventure though, Winnie the Pooh doesn’t take the idea as seriously, playing it for comedy rather than frights and drama. The loose nature of the narrative otherwise, where we see snippets of various Pooh stories, is clearly the same as what The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh did. And I actually like the arc of Pooh trying to get honey the whole way through. In fact if the previous film had been made as a whole rather than an amalgam of already existing shorts, I imagine they’d have tried to employ a connective tissue like this. It gives Pooh a goal which I think is definitely important, especially in a movie being made in more modern times. But at the same time I appreciate that it’s not a massive thing. Pooh getting his honey is fairly inconsequential, but it feels perfectly fitting. 
          Jim Cummings is also fitting, the only satisfactory voice for Winnie the Pooh outside of the late Stirling Holloway. I’m so glad they went with a proper voice actor here, rather than try to find a celebrity to mimic Pooh’s unique voice. In fact considering Cummings has voiced Pooh since 1988 most of us are probably more familiar with him in the role than Holloway. Cummings is also very good as Tigger though no one can replace Paul Winchell. Or John Fiedler as Piglet. Travis Oates voices Piglet in this film and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (co-writer of the songs) is Kanga. Tom Kenny though is a little distracting as Rabbit, as he plays the part in an over-the-top manner similar to many of his cartoon characters. Bud Luckey’s Eeyore may also be a little overplayed: he’s got more of an attitude and sarcasm than I’ve ever seen from him before. And Disney couldn’t resist putting a few celebrities in there, most notably John Cleese as the narrator (whose occasional impatience makes me laugh thinking it might just be Basil Fawlty reading this), and Craig Ferguson as Owl in a larger role than he usually has in these stories so he can deliver more jokes.
          And there may be my biggest problem with the film. Though it opens the same way as the original, and uses many of the same devices, the tone is quite off. There’s a noticeable focus on the comedy in each scene. The whole bit with the “Backson” is quite light, which in a way makes sense given that the stakes and conflict this story had in Pooh’s Grand Adventure while interesting, was not in the spirit of Winnie the Pooh. But a lot of the comedy we see here isn’t either. Those original Winnie the Pooh shorts and that original movie weren’t all that funny, even to kids. Hell if anything they got by on pure atmosphere and how colourful the characters were as well as just the charm of imagination. But in this film the characters are constantly making jokes and trying to get a laugh. There’s also more exaggeration in their expressions and actions. We even get some slapstick in this movie like when Pooh whacks Piglet in a beehive like a piñata, or when Tigger causes Eeyore to catapult himself into the woods. Those instances really don’t feel in keeping with the classic tales by A.A. Milne. Looney Tunes perhaps, and if these were Looney Tunes characters it would work, a number of the jokes ARE well written and generally funny.  But they don’t suit the Winnie the Pooh cast. And I know that there have been episodes of the show and other specials that haven’t kept in the spirit of the original stories either, but this film is a reboot, and its emphasizing its roots with the storybook framing device. Though no references are dropped, the humour seems almost modern too, and not as timeless as the style of the original. One of the things I loved most about the 1977 film was how all the characters’ innocence and naivety, and by extension the simplicity of their stories, felt like legitimate extensions of a child’s imagination. In this movie, Christopher Robin is almost in the background and though I will say kudos on getting his accent right this time, he doesn’t have enough presence for the audience to believe in his imagination. And that’s a big part of what makes Winnie the Pooh on a whole so touching. 
          The movie’s biggest distinction however is that Winnie the Pooh is Disney’s final traditionally animated film, and the animation does look really nice. The Hundred Acre Wood though not quite as interesting as in the first film, looks very good and I like that with regards to their basic design, the characters look no different. In that respect the movie can engage you and works nostalgically. The music is hit or miss. Zooey Deschanel is a pretty questionable choice for a singer and feels kind of forced. While some pieces are really bland, others are okay. Though I like the adventure song from Pooh’s Grand Adventure more, the “Backson Song” is fine and “Everything is Honey” actually really works as a Winnie the Pooh song (clearly the songwriters Kristen Anderson and Robert Lopez made an impression at Disney, because their next job would be Frozen). That latter song is used in a really pretty sequence where Pooh’s daydreaming of honey. There’s a lot of fluent golds and some 3D but it’s animated very well.
          Winnie the Pooh didn’t succeed at the box office and once again, this led to Disney scrapping traditional animation. Maybe if they considered that the poor returns were not necessarily because of the old-fashioned animation as much as the fact it opened against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, they might not have been so hasty to do away with the whole art form. But John Lasseter had already brought Disney hand-drawn animation back from the dead once, and now at least it was going out with a better movie. Winnie the Pooh is certainly a better movie than Home on the Range, and is entertaining enough for children to enjoy. It’s an okay introduction to the Winnie the Pooh world and characters but as a film on its own I can’t quite get over the derivative story points and the tonal problems. That being said, I can’t say there’s anything terrible about it. Someday I hold out hope Disney will revive traditional animation, so Winnie the Pooh doesn’t have to be the last of its kind.

Next Week: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)


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