Sidekick Takes Center Stage
The camera moves gracefully through what is clearly a young boy’s room. It’s not just any young boy’s room, but that of Christopher Robin the boy who plays with Winnie the Pooh. The camera notes the presence of the stuffed animals who have inhabited A. A. Milne’s famous stories since 1921. The narrator (John Hurt) begins to introduce the action, when an animated Tigger (voiced by Jim Cummings) suddenly hops into the frame. Tigger begins to talk to the off-screen narrator, complaining that the stores are always about Winnie the Pooh (also voiced by Jim Cummings). He shakes the letters for “Winnie the Pooh” off the title page of an open book and replaces them with his own handwritten title, “The Tigger Movie.” No one in the audience with me seemed to take offense at this, but the implications of Tigger at the center of The Tigger Movie are worth considering.
Many fans of Milne’s characters and the videos featuring them would be surprised to learn that Tigger only appears in 3 of the 20 original Winnie the Pooh stories. His position in the Pooh universe has been elevated over the years since Disney took over, but his starring role here may be an attempt to supplant the less boisterous Winnie. If the film is financially successful… Scratch that. The film will be successful because it has the weight of the Disney machine on its side. But if the film is wildly successful, one wonders if the next film will have Tigger at the center again. At what point will Winnie the Pooh be known as one of Tigger’s friends?
Supporting players in films can often steal the show, and often do in Disney films like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. In the current (Disney-owned) Toy Story series, Buzz Lightyear and Woody are really co-stars so far (though, apparently, Buzz will soon have his own TV show). Tigger’s move ahead of Winnie is akin to Toy Story 3 being subtitled, Mr. Potato Head Takes Manhattan or Wheezy Takes a Bride. Winnie is reduced to a supporting player in the film, and gets only one song (a cute lullaby he sings to honey bees so he can feast unmolested). What’s more, Tigger’s sidekick is not Winnie, but young Roo (Nikita Hopkins), who even learns to bounce like Tigger.
This is something of a conceptual leap as it were since bouncing has always been what makes Tigger Tigger. And initially, he revels in his uniqueness, performing a solo song just after the opening credits. Afterwards, the film begins its investigation of the relationship between individuality and community, using Tigger both as object lesson and point of identification: as he bounces along, Tigger decides that he wants someone willing to bounce with him through 100 Acre Wood. Unfortunately, his usual companions Winnie, Kanga (Kathe Soucie), Piglet (John Fiedler) prefer to prepare for winter. Roo is willing, but Tigger is out of earshot when he yells after him: Tigger still needs to learn some lessons about true friendship.
Tigger has always had a little too much energy for his co-stars, and on this day his bouncing begins to seem irritating to them. During his search for a bouncing partner, Tigger manages to destroy Eeyore’s (Peter Cullen) house of sticks without even realizing it. The group tries and fails to build a new house for Eeyore with a contraption that would make Wylie E. Coyote and Acme proud. Just in time, Tigger arrives to add more chaos. As though filling in for the Road Runner, he destroys the contraption and sends everyone else into a large mud pond with his “Whoop-de-Dooper Loop-de-Looper Allez-Ooper Bounce.” The others suggest that Tigger find other tiggers to bounce with him, and he cheerfully agrees that this is an excellent idea. He then sets out to find his family, who might better appreciate his bouncing.
Though this new story may be reorganizing the Pooh universe, the creators are not about to introduce characters which do not have corresponding stuffed animals in Christopher Robin’s (Tom Attenborough) bedroom. So the search for Tigger’s family is really only a question of what it will take for him to realize that the other animals are his family a family of different colors, personalities, and species. Children in the audience know this long before Robin says it at the end, and Tigger will eventually agree.
To get all of us to this resolution, the movie must invite us to follow along with Tigger’s process of self-discovery. It begins as his tigger family (actually the other animals) writes him a letter, which Tigger reads as an announcement that they are coming to visit. He becomes very excited and launches into a musical number imagining his family tree, which is so odd and exuberant that it’s actually jarring. As Tigger sings about his family tree, the film cuts to a rapid series of images involving artistic icons, many of which will mean nothing to younger viewers. We see Tigger-faces inserted into a version of Whistler’s Mother, a Van Gogh self-portrait, and Dali’s Persistence of Memory, and he appears looking like Marilyn Monroe and Rodin’s The Thinker. Tigger also shows up in a top hat and coattails on steps straight out of a ‘30s Hollywood musical (shown briefly in a Busby Berkeley-style overhead shot), and in a scene that’s clearly ripped out of Jerry Springer, as talk show quests squabble.
This scene, Tigger’s disruption of the house-building attempt, and the action-packed finale are the three most striking scenes in the film. In the finale, Tigger and Roo use the “Whoop-de-Dooper Loop-de-Looper Allez-Ooper Bounce” to save the others and themselves in a terrific snow storm. The energy of these scenes is a direct result of Tigger’s primary role. He’s always been a rambunctious character, yet these three moments constitute a shift in the Pooh cosmos. The slapstick scene involving Eeyore’s house is not new, but the emphasis on the scene is new (it’s the funniest moment in the film and inspires the search for Tigger’s family the conflict and plot of the film); the “family tree” musical number must be the busiest four minutes in the history of the franchise; and the finale (wherein strength and agility save the day, as opposed to the usual truthfulness and caring) runs counter to the typical message of Pooh stories.
It seems that Disney has decided that the slow-moving, slow-thinking and slow-speaking Winnie (and the once-touted Eeyore) can not compete with Pikichu and his fellow Pokemon for children’s attention. To be sure, The Tigger Movie is always entertaining, with charming songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. The animation (by a “new generation” of Disney artists, who worked for 5 months with the team of 30 animators at Walt Disney Animation, Japan) is delightful while carefully following the previously established Disney representations of the characters. Yet it is interesting during the closing credits to note (if you can ignore Kenny Loggins’ singing) the presence of images from the story which are not taken from the film itself but emulate Ernest H. Shepard’s famous book illustrations. These will not likely soften the blow for those offended by Disney’s continuing alterations to the series.
A viewer might wonder, “Why The Tigger Movie now”? Again, the Pokemon phenomenon may be instructive, as well as the recent release of Fantasia 2000, in which Mickey Mouse makes a prominent return to the big screen. It’s clear that children need periodic reminders why they like particular cartoon characters, and their parents need reminders why they should purchase the tie-in merchandise. This film reminds everyone of the Winnie the Pooh characters, updating them for both new and loyal consumers.
A glance at the movie’s official webpage confirms any retail-oriented suspicions. On the left margin of the page are a series of links. The first is a map of the 100 Acre Wood. Next comes the Disney Store, then “Pooh Stuff,” followed by “Tigger Stuff,” and eventually a link for a sweepstakes, and, oh yes, a synopsis of the film’s plot. This privileging of the commodities is no more accidental than anything else concocted by the meticulous folks at Disney. They pay attention to trends and shape them as well: we might note that on this website, Winnie of Pooh is still on top. It remains to be seen if this will still be the case after the box office numbers come in for The Tigger Movie.