As Winnie the Pooh begins, the Bear of Very Little Brain is a-slumber. As soon as the narrator, John Cleese, starts talking — “He greeted the day with much enthusiasm” — what you’re seeing doesn’t quite match. Pooh doesn’t quite want to wake up, and turns away from the camera. To encourage him to do greet that day, the frame pitches, right then left, the bed skids along the floor. Still, Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) resists. When at last he opens his eyes, he explains his reluctance: “I was having the most wonderful dream!”
This early scene sets up a frankly delightful idea at the center of Winnie the Pooh, an interplay between text and character, storyteller and viewer. This is a movie about reading that not only shows characters reading (and misreading, as Owl, voiced by Craig Ferguson, is wont to do), but also shows the mechanics of reading, the fun and flexibility of the process, the ways it opens up imaginative possibilities. Inspired and inspiring readers since its first publication in 1926, A.A. Milne’s book is not just a plot source, but more like a character, alongside Pooh and Tigger (Cummings again) and Piglet (Travis Oates) and that ever hovering Red Balloon that’s not quite inanimate.
Throughout, the toys interact with the text, in the form of Cleese’s voiceover as well as actual letters and words on the page. The result is a little bit of a revelation: a kids’ movie that isn’t embarrassing, cluttered with fart jokes or appealing to parents and children on different levels. Winnie the Pooh is, instead, a kids’ movie that invites adults to remember what it’s like to be kids.
Just so, when Pooh is finally awake, his first move is dictated by his growling tummy. When a quick search reveals that his cupboard is bare — or rather, filled with empty honey pots — he heads out into the Hundred Acre Wood in search of sustenance. He checks out nearby beehives and knocks on friends’ doors, asking, please, so politely, for a bit of breakfast. In due course, he winds up at Owl’s house. And here, before Pooh can quite lay his paws on honey, he’s joined by Piglet, Tigger, Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez) and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall), all gathered to discuss the day’s first mystery — the loss of Eeyore’s (Bud Luckey) tail.
As Eeyore mopes, the friends establish a competition to find replacement. As the prize is a pot of honey, Pooh is extra-interested. The possible substitutes include a Jack-N-the-Box, a cuckoo clock, a scarf knitted by Kanga, even the Balloon, which carries him away as he tries to walk with it attached. Alas, nothing quite does the trick. As they continue to ponder (and Pooh’s belly continues to gurgle), they come on the day’s second puzzle, the disappearance of Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), who leaves behind a note that seems to say he’s been kidnapped by the “Backson,” that is, Owl’s misunderstanding of the phrase, “Back Soon.”
Owl goes on to spin a story about the monster, his description of it as large and orange-haired and horned accompanied by a series of crayonish drawings that mark the fantasy as being different from the friends’ own existence (each appears in the fantasy as well, in sketched form). As the toys devise a scheme for trapping the Backson and rescuing Christopher Robin, Pooh frets. “Words bother me,” he sighs.
Yes, and that’s precisely their beauty, as they help him to communicate that bother, share ideas with friends, and say what’s on his Little Brain. The toys’ scheme for finding the Backson involves a collection of objects — a trail of teapots and drums and crayons and cups, all treasures coveted by a child or a toy or even a Backson. At their end, Piglet digs a hole (supervised by Pooh), into which the monster will fall. As Pooh observes the hole — and Piglet’s disguise of it, with a picnic cloth marked by an empty honey pot — you know just where this scheme is headed.
Throughout their adventures, the toys run into words. Literally. The movie’s narrative is repeatedly interrupted and so enhanced and reshaped by words on pages, sometimes showing the narrator’s script, and sometimes turned into animated elements Pooh and Piglet must clamber over. This attention to what letters and sentences and even paragraphs look like on a surface, how they lead the eye and create anticipation, how they conjure pictures or are visual signs in their own right.
Again and again, this effect is strange and even enchanting: Pooh and Eeyore and Piglet scramble over words or climb onto letters, they bump into Es and Ls and Ses. As props and as emblems, as metaphors and things, the words are the basis of storytelling and also friendship, the means to understanding and communication and sharing.