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'Pooh' Is Perfect... Almost.

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Friday, Oct 28, 2011
With its genuine pleasures and gentle approach, Disney's 51st animated feature is one of its very best.
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Winnie the Pooh (Blu-ray)

Director: Don Hall, Stephen Anderson
Cast: Bud Luckey, Craig Ferguson, Jack Boulter, Jim Cummings, John Cleese, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Tom Kenny, Travis Oates, Wyatt Hall

(Walt Disney; US DVD: 18 Oct 2011 (General release); UK DVD: 18 Oct 2011 (General release))

He’s one of Disney’s most beloved characters, a classic cartoon icon adapted from a beloved children’s book. After a series of successful shorts (with many compiled into complete motion pictures) and stand alone features - even a TV series or two – the House of Mouse wants to reinvent the honey loving bruin and his menagerie of kind companions for a while new generation. The results are the reason family films are so popular today, an enjoyable effort that reminds audiences of all ages the magic inherent in hand drawn animation and the movies made from same. In fact, this new Winnie the Pooh is so wonderful, so entertaining and engaging, that only a single creative idea undermines its inherent joy.


What is that decision, you may ask? What could studio suits have done to undermine what is basically a brilliant modern masterwork? Well, they could let questionable musical talent Zooey Deschanel (with main contributions from composer Henry Jackman) rewrite the potent Pooh songbook, substituting her and her cohorts lame shoe-gazing glop for the Oscar winning work of longtime Walt wonders, Richard and Robert Sherman. How in the name of all that it good can anyone or anything compare to the brothers’ memorable contributions to the cause, tunes as timeless as “Little Black Raincloud,” “Rumbly in My Tumbly,” and “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers?” Instead, the indie princess and her collaborators substitutes non-starters such as “The Tummy Song,” “You’ve Been Tiggerized,” and “Everything Is Honey.” Yawn.
  
At least the narrative maintains the core elements of the Pooh legacy. Based on three of A.A. Milne’s many stories -“In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One,” “In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump,” and “In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings” – the main plotline sees our tubby little chubby all stuffed with fluff trying to help his donkey pal find a suitable substitute for his missing backside ornamentation. Later, Pooh is convinced that his best friend, Christopher Robin, has been captured by a monster known as the ‘Backson.’ It is up to the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang – Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Kango and her tiny son Roo – to rescue him. Finally, Pooh’s biggest problem remains a significant lack of honey in his life. As he tries to satisfy his hunger, he runs into all manner of comic difficulties.


With its genuine pleasures and gentle approach, Disney’s 51st animated feature is one of its very best. By staying true to its core characters and never pandering to the proposed changes in contemporary entertainment, Winnie the Pooh not only wins, but it succeeds where the company’s previous pen and ink attempts have stumbled. Ever since they announced a desire to drop the traditional animation style (the lackluster performance of titles like Home on the Range couldn’t have helped) for more CG oriented fare, fans of the form have been waiting for the inevitable reversal of fortune and renaissance. While The Princess and the Frog showed promise, it is Pooh who steps in and truly saves the day.


Parents who are perplexed by the current crop of proposed kid vid alternative should be cheering this timeless throwback. It doesn’t preach or pretend to be something it’s not. It values such traditional cinematic elements as character, pacing, storytelling, and visual viability. While the computer creates an almost limitless level of possibilities, the single cell conceit requires concentration on the part of the production. No moment can be wasted, no facet finessed with unnecessary optical complications. Instead, we have to care about Pooh and his present concerns, smile as he tries to overcome his complaints. We also have to enjoy the presence of his friends, how Eeyore reacts to his choice of new tail, or how Owl misreads the note about the Backson.


Of course, some can complain that this is all aimed at the youngest of the family film demo, small fries who aren’t ready for the more mature qualities of the genre. But this assumes that some element of Winnie the Pooh is stunted or specifically geared toward the child – and that’s just not true. Instead, the film finds a way to communicate to everyone in the audience, to drag both the pre-schooler and their older siblings into this magical movie world. Better still, those nostalgic for a return to form, for a chance to see the character they fell in love with nearly 40 years ago back on the big screen where he belongs, this effort fits the bill perfectly. While the voices are a bit off (they are still very good), everything else here is pure, potent Pooh.


Besides, the message here is so strong and so necessary that even a lesser effort would earn some support. Pooh has and will always be about friendship, about helping others and persevering where and when failure seems destined. There is no judgment here, no attempt by Christopher Robin or any of his playthings to put themselves above the others. Even Owl, who fancies himself a know-it-all, gets his necessary gentle comeuppance after a while. Also indicative of the plotting is the premise that one must overcome their selfish needs, or their inherent fears, in order to find a sense of peace. Pooh is constantly craving something to eat. His pal Piglet is basically afraid of his own shadow. Together, they always conquer their issues to instill a sense of courage in each other.


It is the overriding theme of togetherness and companionship that guides the giddy pleasures of Winnie the Pooh. It argues for a return to the old ways of traditional animation augmented by a contemporary take on the type. Sure, the mediocre musical choices are troubling, especially when you consider the flawlessness of the original tunes, but it’s a minor misstep, a miscalculation that just can’t undermine the innate greatness of what’s being presented. All throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Disney traded on its catalog of memorable movies to create unnecessary sequels and even more redundant product. Winnie the Pooh could have easily fallen into this category. Instead, it becomes a standard all its own.


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