‘Winnie the Pooh’s Virtue is how Effortlessly It Spins Charm and Humor out of Its Spare Story

[8 December 2011]

By Jake Meaney

So purely calm and gentle, so lovingly drawn and crafted, so deliberately old-fashioned and subtext free, it’s no wonder that, going up against the shrill, fast paced, three dimensional onslaught of general children’s entertainment these days, Winnie the Pooh failed to find a large popular audience amidst the ruckus of other summer releases this year. Which is just a terrible shame, since if a more warm, inviting and, most of all, comfortable movie has been released in the last five – or even ten – years, I haven’t seen it. 

Returning to its two dimensional, hand drawn animation roots (sadly, all too infrequent an occurrence these days), Disney offers its new version of Winnie the Pooh as a chance to introduce the beloved inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood to a whole new young audience, while returning to the beginning of the series for older audiences who want to ride a bullet train of nostalgia straight back to their childhood.

A bare wisp of a thing, clocking in at barely an hour, you could be forgiven for thinking that Winnie the Pooh isn’t trying hard enough to make an impression – but does it even have to? Isn’t the impression of Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger and the rest of the gang already immutably drawn straight onto our memories, our imaginations and our hearts?

And that’s the key to why, for all its simplicity and seeming innocuousness, Pooh works so effectively, where so much other children’s fare falls flat, or fades quickly from memory. It’s not just that the film trades and tugs on our memory, imagination and heart, but that it allows for the time and space for imagination to unfold, for memory of our childhood to blend and share in the formation of new memories in our own children.  We have invested so much of our hearts in these simple characters that they have become an integral part of ourselves, buried in our subconscious, waiting to be unearthed and dusted off by just such an occasion as this.

Winnie the Pooh’s plot is incidental, and never so complex that it gets in the way or becomes the main focus of events, but if you must, it (shockingly) involves Pooh’s ever present hunger for honey, and how best to obtain this beloved favorite treat. This eternal quest is quickly sidelined by the sad fate of Eeyore, who has awoken to find his tail missing. The animals all gather together at a “Very Important Meeting” adjourned by Christopher Robin, and a contest is devised to find a new tail for their despondent donkey friend – the prize being, naturally, a giant pot of honey. Various, humorously inappropriate substitutions are all proffered by Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit and the rest (a cuckoo clock, an accordion, and a chalk board among them), and all fail to make the grade.

And then, somehow, everything is sidetracked again by the sudden disappearance of Christopher Robin, who leaves behind a simple note that explains his whereabouts, which the fussy, pompous Owl misreads to being some sort of ransom note by an imaginary monster called the “Backson” (Owl’s mangling of the phrase “Back Soon”). So the gang them devises a plan to rescue Christopher Robin from this monster, and various hilarity ensues. And… Well, that’s pretty much it.

Winnie the Pooh’s supreme virtue is how effortlessly it spins charm and humor out of its spare story. It hinges on the timeless characters, of course, but also finds a secret weapon in its (quite literal) storybook presentation, less a film than a visualized instance of someone reading to you. Not updating the previous animated look of Pooh one lick, the animation is simple and decidedly unfussy and unglossy (no CGI here), with bold lines, and simple primary colors.

Everything looks straight out of the original A.A. Milne storybooks, and this carries over into the style and framing of the film itself, which presents the events in chapters, with words straight from the books taking up screen real estate and the characters interacting with the text –both written and narrated—in humorous and witty fashion. It’s a simple and brilliant move that at once calls attention back to Pooh’s text origins (hopefully spurring extracurricular reading after the credits roll), and allows us to imagine the animals existing outside of the action contained in the setting (this continues straight through the whole film and even into the credits, which are well worth watching as well), reinforcing their “realness” (you remember that Pooh and gang were all stuffed animals of the real Christopher Robin, Milne’s son).
Carrying all of this along is a bouncy collection of songs that are endearing and pretty catchy, a few of them written and sung by that high priestess of whimsy, Zooey Deschanel. She is so perfectly appropriate and obvious a choice to sing songs for a Winnie the Pooh movie that I probably laughed for a good ten minutes straight when I saw her name listed on the DVD case: it’s like her whole career has been leading up to this (and this is in no way meant to be an insult).

The voice works is also spot on – the narration by John Cleese is calming while being a bit knowingly cheeky; Craig Ferguson’s Owl is a pompous know it all windbag who trips over big words and into endless malapropisms; and long time voice of Pooh Jim Cummings (he also voices Tigger) cements it all with his familiar worried quaver that is the very embodiment of the warm fuzzies.

I could probably prattle on endlessly about what a pure unadulterated joy Winnie the Pooh is; how welcome a respite it is from the loud, obnoxious children’s movies that bombard and bludgeon every possible sensory input (except the heart); how much of this I watched through a prism of constantly welling tears (the trailer, backed by Keane’s wistful “Somewhere Only We Know”, had the same effect) – but I should deprive you of precious time of hurrying out immediately to buy, or at least rent, this truly wonderful little movie that will certainly be a fixture of home viewing for the long term.

Winnie the Pooh’s combo Blu-Ray/DVD release is about as short on extras as the film itself is short on time. About 15 minutes of deleted scenes, with introductions by the directors, flesh out a few scenes from the film, though only two of them are fully animated (the others are sketches arranged like a flipbook). A few of the scenes were left out for pacing issues, which is somewhat understandable, but others were apparently cut for time constraints – um, what?! The film—with credits included, mind you—already runs a lean 62 minutes. Surely the tykes constituting the intended audience could be held in their seats for an additional 5-7 minutes? No?!  A short featurette on the history of previous Disney adaptations of Pooh (one of which won an Academy Award in the 1960s) and the development of this particular re-envisioning is, again, a lot shorter than it probably should be (a common complaint with this disc).

The two best features are a pair animated shorts, one of which ran theatrically with the main film. The Ballad of Nessie is a gentle, melancholic fable about the Loch Ness monster as a young’un, and how she created her home in Loch Ness out of a trail of tears. It’s surprisingly affecting for being only five minutes long. The other is a short misadventure of Winnie the Pooh and his trusty balloon, as he tries again to obtain some honey, stirring up a whole nest of trouble. Silly old bear – he’ll never learn.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/152175-winnie-the-pooh/