Silly Old Bear: ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’

As sure as Winnie the Pooh loves honey, Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, is certain to transport you back to your childhood via the Hundred Acre Wood with its charming innocence and whimsical storyline. The 1977 film, now available on Blu-ray disc, is actually a combination of three enjoyable shorts that, interestingly enough, won’t appeal to the whole family; even among Disney fare, it’s exclusively a children’s tale. Nothing is brash, rushed, or loud, and the plots don’t exactly thicken. Yet the hand-drawn appeal and the sunshiny, low-key adventures remain encompassing. A viewing of Pooh’s earliest adventures is surprisingly calm, showing a lot of welcome restraint on behalf of all the storytellers involved.

For such an unassuming stuffed bear Pooh’s exploits are magical, but to delight in them you have to either be a child or be mature enough to appreciate the feeling of being young at heart. Otherwise, you’ll feel as downhearted as Eeyore or as short tempered as Rabbit during the film’s entire runtime. So many animated films are made as much (or more) for adults as for children, so what’s surprisingly admirable about this Disney feature is that its appeal is aimed squarely at youngsters whose age is still in the single digits.

It has cheerful colors, down-to-earth drawings, positive melodies, a story that is exciting but not too long, and a simple, good-natured protagonist they can identify with. Even the letters on the signs and doors are turned peculiarly, as if written by the four-year-olds that might admire the animated classic the most.

For viewers young and old, it’s obvious that the animal characters make enjoyable foils for one another. Eeyore’s glum demeanor, Piglet’s frantic nervousness, Rabbit’s worrying, Owl’s nonstop talking, Pooh’s childlike disposition, and Tigger’s adventurous merriment, make the many scenes where hardly anything happens still worth watching.

Plus, the bouncy, sing song musical numbers by the talented Sherman Brothers and winning vocal performances from the likes of Hal Smith, Paul Winchell, and John Fiedler add plenty of personality to the endearing characters and their witty dialogue.

When author A.A. Milne began publishing his fantasy storybooks based on his son Christopher Robin’s stuffed toy, he couldn’t have imagined he’d play a part in furthering the Disney empire.

Historians say that Walt Disney’s children loved reading the original Milne stories and it correspondingly became Walt’s intention to see Pooh, Piglet, and company in an animated feature film. However, since American audiences weren’t yet as familiar with Milne’s tales as they should have been, Walt decided to make short films instead, in order to familiarize the country with these characters that were already much beloved overseas. As a special feature on the new Blu-ray disc says, Walt promised his crew, “It’ll become a masterpiece. Watch and see.” And, it goes without saying, he was absolutely correct.

The 25-minute short film Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree hit theatres in 1966 accompanying an entirely forgettable live-action feature called The Ugly Dachshund. With the incomparable Sterling Holloway giving Pooh his amiable voice, Pooh succeeded where the dachshund failed.

Two other featurettes followed in theatres in 1968 and 1974 and audiences’ appreciation for whimsical adventures set in the Hundred Acre Wood grew with each release. Walt Disney passed away before the feature film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ever came to fruition, but he would have marveled at the result. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was finally released in 1977, assembling all three existing theatrical shorts together in a single package: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree from 1966, 1968’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and 1974’s Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.

The three stories themselves are of little consequence, it’s the characters that matter. The first tale, follows Pooh’s pursuit of honey and Rabbit’s futile attempt to get the silly, old bear unstuck from his doorway after he eats too much of it. In the second, a windy day gives way to a rainstorm and a flood in the Hundred Acre Wood, giving Piglet and Pooh each a chance to be a hero. In the third segment, Tigger goes out for a bounce and gets stuck in a tree.

What’s not to like? As each timeless segment from the compilation shows, simple can be better.

A fourth, shorter featurette was added to bring the film to a close. The sequence was based on the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, where the young boy Christopher Robin has to leave his stuffed friend Pooh behind to start school and learn “how to make things called ABCs, and where a place called Brazil is.” It’s this ending scene where the film, if you’re looking for it, takes a fleeting grown-up tone. The concluding scene will seem like a passing moment for children, but for the adult in the right mood, Christopher Robin’s farewell of sorts to Pooh says something profoundly deep about the putting away of childish things while holding onto their memory.

While the feature film is certainly an assembly of the shorts’ unrelated storylines, it flows surprisingly well thanks to lively narration by Sebastian Cabot (of Family Affair fame) and some spirited transitions.Yes, it’s odd that Piglet and Tigger are absent from Honey Tree and the voice actor playing Christopher Robin obviously changes from segment to segment, but there’s too much to be enjoyed to really bother.

And while the film isn’t innovative, it does take some small risks. What’s most surprising, compared to other films of the period, animated or otherwise, is how seamlessly Pooh and company break the fourth wall and go outside the boundaries usually set up by fiction. Much to the glee of the audience, the characters literally live in Milne’s book, hop from page to page, and stop to converse with the narrator. At one point, at his request, the narrator even tilts “the book” to help Tigger out of a tree, essentially ridding the characters of their conflict in the third segment.

Similarly, there’s a clever sense of humor that carries through from Milne’s tales that make moments of dialogue similar to the wit found in Monty Python sketches. For example, in Blustery Day it’s so absurdly windy that Piglet and Pooh assume it must be Winds-day. Or take the line from the Honey Tree segment where after Gopher, an original Disney addition who did not appear in Milne’s stories, leaves. Owl says, “Dash it all, he’s gone” to which Pooh replies, “After all he’s not in the book, you know.” This sort of dialogue is fairly prevalent, giving the grown-up viewers something to appreciate that they might have not noticed as children.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Pooh’s dream sequence in Blustery Day, “Heffalumps and Woozles”, is not just wildly imaginative and an onslaught of colorful shape shifting; it’s the most psychedelic piece of Disney feature animation since “Pink Elephants on Parade” in 1941’s Dumbo.

All in all, there’s no denying it’s a real honey of a film.

Fans of Pooh Bear should take comfort in knowing The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has never looked better than it does on Blu-ray, even though its digital restoration doesn’t look as stellar as some other re-releases of Disney classics.

The Blu-ray disc contains the expected variety of special features, though most of them were available on the earlier DVD release. It includes a dated-looking 25-minute documentary that skims over Walt’s controversial acquirement of the rights to Milne’s characters but otherwise intelligently walks through the creation of Milne’s stories and, of course, the three substantial shorts that make up the 1977 film. It’s worth watching just to learn trivial tidbits like voice actor Paul Winchell’s claim that Tigger’s famous “TTFN” goodbye was completely ad-libbed.

There are numerous “mini adventures” of Winnie the Pooh included on the disc too even though, despite what’s advertised, these cartoons are merely two-minute snippets from Piglet’s Big Movie and Winnie the Pooh. There’s also a featurette called “Pooh’s Play-Along” for small children that encourages kids to actually get off the couch and stretch like Pooh or bounce with Tigger and Rabbit, which is an admirable idea that, even for what it is, is poorly executed.

The most noteworthy inclusion on the Blu-ray disc is the presentation of 1983’s A Day for Eeyore, another theatrically-released animated short about Pooh and friends that isn’t especially terrific on its own but is nonetheless all stuffed with the fluffy childlike goodness you’d hope for.

RATING 8 / 10
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