Traditional, Silly Fun in Disney’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’

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CHICAGO – Walt Disney Pictures goes old school with their latest animated tale, a return to the Hundred Acre Woods and the adventures of “Winnie the Pooh.” Using the style of the classic “2-D” cartoon method, and crafting a story that is decidedly old fashioned, the folks at the Mouse Factory resisted updating the Pooh formula.

This is your daddy’s, hell, it’s your granddaddy’s Winnie the Pooh, going back to the innocence of childhood. The film uses the energy of a child’s imagination as its universe, supposing that Christopher Robin can create the whole energy of Winnie the Pooh by making believe that his toys can come to life, thereby creating all of Pooh’s friends and supposed monster enemies. Instead of pop culture references, it’s a misunderstanding that fuels the adventure.

The animated story starts with a live action shot of Christopher Robin’s room, a collection of stuff and stuffed toys, all catalogued for the purpose of imagination. This is actually the origin of the Winnie the Pooh stories, as the English author A.A. Milne used his child as the model for Christopher Robin and adopted the names of his son’s toys to populate his story. Once the story begins, the switch occurs to the Hundred Acre Wood and the familiar Disney cartoon style that has been used for Pooh, and the bear’s actions are crisply narrated by John Cleese.

The woodland inhabitants include Winnie the Pooh (voice of Jim Cummings), his pals Eeyore (Bud Luckey), Owl (Craig Ferguson, Piglet (Travis Oates), Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez), Tigger (Cummings again) and Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter). Pooh is in constant pursuit of his beloved sweet honey, the rest of the menagerie operate off that plot point. They also interact within a picture book, occasionally running into the letters on the page or speaking directly to the narrator.

A Page Out of Pooh: The Surreal Storybook Letters in ‘Winnie the Pooh’
A Page Out of Pooh: The Surreal Storybook Letters in ‘Winnie the Pooh’
Photo credit: © Disney Enterprises

In a case of misunderstanding, the gang reads a letter from Christopher Robin saying he will be “back soon.” Owl interprets this to imagine that Christopher R. has been kidnapped by a creature named the “Backson.” Soon everybody is fearfully setting traps and preparing military strategies to deal with the unseen menace. Hey, what else do cartoon-like talking woodland creatures have to do?

Pooh is legendary, he has been a childhood favorite since his introduction in the 1920’s. He went to a higher plane in 1966 when Walt Disney first animated the story in “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree.” It was in this short film that the style was established. The woodland gang would be in a storybook, read by a narrator and Pooh’s main pursuit would be honey. Even the vocal characterizations have been brought to the current film, as the original tenor of Pooh’s voice (Sterling Holloway) is maintained by Jim Cummings.

Like “The Flintstones” and many other cartoon classics, it is interesting to compare the substitute voices to the original. Monty Pythoner John Cleese takes over the narrator spot, originally occupied by Sebastian Cabot, and does a great job. In fact, the surreal bit of the characters talking directly to the unseen narrator has a Python-esque edge to it. This being Disney, they can afford the best, and Cumming’s Winnie the Pooh is spot on. Unfortunately his Tigger leaves a bit to be desired. No one can match the weird aural gymnastics that was the original Tigger, Paul Winchell.

Word play, symbolism and philosophy – as expressed through Pooh’s famous aphorism, “oh bother” – is nicely on display in the film. There is a quirky little sketch in the middle of the story, having to do with the words “not,” “naught” and “knot.” The characters also represent, like the Wizard of Oz, the virtues of personality types. Owl is arrogance, Pooh is innocence, Piglet is fear, etc. Also in reading into the story, it can be argued that the “Backson” represents our own irrational fear of monsters unseen, stirred up by rumors and innuendo.

But this is strictly kid stuff, leave the analysis to the Harvard boys (I am state schooled). Smaller kids will be delighted with this, both story-wise and visually. There are several segments where the production plays with the animation, including a chalk board-like rendition of all the characters. The songs are decent but weird, in accordance with the story. The physical comedy is silly, especially when interacting with the letters in the storybook, which can be a statement on language itself (Dang! More analysis).

Owl (voice of Craig Ferguson) and Tigger (Jim Cummings) in ‘Winnie the Pooh’
Owl (voice of Craig Ferguson) and Tigger (Jim Cummings) in ‘Winnie the Pooh’
Photo credit: © Disney Enterprises

Don’t discount nostalgia as well. The Pooh of our childhood, as presented by Disney, is as comforting as warm tea and milk. The familiar characters drift in and out of the consciousness, fueled both by the visual effect and the pleasure centers of our own lost childhood dreams. The emotion is soothing, and in effect allows forgiveness for the pure silliness of the enterprise.

There is an exchange by Pooh and Piglet in one of the original stories that has an appropriateness to the latest film version. After the porcine creature asks for the bear’s attention, and Pooh wonders why, Piglet says, “Nothing, I just wanted to be sure of you.”

”Winnie the Pooh” opens everywhere on July 15th. Featuring the voices of John Cleese, Craig Ferguson, Jim Cummings, Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Travis Oates, Bud Luckey and Jack Boulter. Based on characters created by A.A. Milne, directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall. Rated “G”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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