More or less a year ago, when I wrote about The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, I said how I had resisted revisiting that film for so long because of character fatigue. The reason for this was that at some point in the eighties, Disney decided that it was time to capitalize as much as it could on the Pooh brand. Even though the three shorts that make up The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh are a fantastic work of animation that can be enjoyed and appreciated by whoever watches them, executives realized that Pooh and his friends could very easily and effectively appeal to small children. This realization gave way to the creation of many mediocre sequels, many mediocre television series, and the stamping of Pooh’s image (as well as Tigger’s, Eeyore’s and Piglet’s) into countless merchandize items.
So bland was Pooh’s ubiquity during this period that my reaction to the release of Winnie the Pooh in 2011 couldn’t have been more muted. Winnie the Pooh was, however (and I didn’t know this at the time), Disney’s (or John Lasseter’s?) attempt to revive the character through a product that had the same quality as the classic shorts produced in the sixties, and that would erase the bitter taste of the many years of direct-to-video sequels.
How did they plan to do this? Well, for starters, Winnie the Pooh was not only a theatrical film, but it was produced by Disney Animation Studios (instead of the low-budget and not nearly as prestigious Disney Toon Studios), which meant it is part of the official Disney Canon. It would also be the first Pooh-related movie since the original shorts to have a plot based directly on A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books (although direct-to-video Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin has a similar plot, it is not officially based on Milne’s writing). With this movie, John Lasseter was basically trying to hit two (passion-fueled) birds with one stone. First, he was dearly hoping to go back to the what made Pooh such a great character. And second, this movie was the next step in the planned big comeback of hand-drawn animation, which started two years prior with The Princess and the Frog, and pretty much ended when Winnie the Pooh underperformed at the box office.
So, Winnie the Pooh wasn’t a financial success (it didn’t even manage to make back its 30 million budget in the U.S.), but was it a creative success? The answer to that question is: mostly, yes. For starters, there is no denying that this is the best looking Pooh-related project since Many Adventures. The animation and background work are just beautiful (although I’m not entirely comfortable with the redesign of Christopher Robin). It is also the first Pooh-related project in years to embrace the original meta premise that this is all taking place inside a book and interact with the text in said book resulting in many of the movie’s funniest visual gags. Also, and this might have something to do with the fact that it was so closely based on Milne’s original works, this is the first Pooh-related project to make right by the title character in many, many, years.
Having been born in the 90s, I couldn’t help the fact that my most constant exposure to Pooh as a character was through the television series and the sequels, most of which didn’t really know what to do with him except present him as a dumb bear, and instead focused on the characters around him, especially the more dynamic Tigger. Thus, it was with great surprise that when watching Many Adventures for the first time in many years, I discovered that Pooh could not only be a terrific character, but the best and most interesting character of the Hundred Acre Woods. It was with even bigger surprise that I discovered that Winnie the Pooh also knew this fact about its protagonist. It’s not only that Pooh is at the center of the story, but that the animators (and voice actor Jim Cummings) completely nail the character’s appeal, rendering him not so much as dumb than as childlike in its innocence and simple ways.
Although the movie uses Pooh wonderfully, it does not know how to extend that magnificent grip to all of the other supporting characters. Some of them it does wonderfully. The best work is done on Eeyore (Bud Luckey), whose pessimism has always made him one of my favorites, gets some of his best lines ever in the movie. There’s also a lot of good Owl (Craig Ferguson) stuff, mainly the recurring joke of him writing his overlong memoirs. I heard a lot of complaints about the movie’s treatment of Rabbit (Tom Kenny), who does feel a little too angry, but not too unfamiliarly so. In my opinion, the movie’s weakest character is, weirdly, Tigger. The movie doesn’t seem very interested in him, and it definitely doesn’t strike the right balance as far as his personality goes, making him come across more as obnoxious and aggressive than enthusiastic.
So, with all this in mind, what’s my final thought about Winnie the Pooh. To say that it doesn’t manage to be as good as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh would be useless, since it the latter is one of the most excellent movies Disney ever made, and struck the perfect balance in making a childlike movie that didn’t look down to its audience. What one can say is that Winnie the Pooh gets as close as it possibly can, which is surprisingly close, and much much closer than I would have ever imagined. Despite not being able to fully service all its characters, there is nothing that should keep it from being an extraordinary movie, except for the fact that it just isn’t. At the end of the day what keeps me from outright loving Winnie the Pooh is an abstract thing that I can’t describe, that brings it close to that place, but doesn’t quite let it get there (A not so abstract thing that is also a minus for me are the unmemorable songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez).
Next Time: It’s hard to believe, but this Canon Project is coming to an end. Since I already reviewed Frozen, the next and final entry will be Wreck-It-Ralph.