Disney’s new Winnie the Pooh is an unexpected gift, an unlikely return to a magical and gentle world that belongs so firmly to the past that I would have thought the journey all but impossible.
A.A. Milne’s beloved character, Winnie the Pooh, and his Hundred Acre Wood friends, for decades a cornerstone of the Disney empire, have languished since my childhood in second-rate, small-screen adaptations, as well as a few theatrically released films (The Tigger Movie, Piglet’s Big Movie, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie) indistinguishable from direct-to-video fare.
Until now, few if any of these latter-day efforts have displayed much grasp of the sense of whimsy and nonsense that is the soul of Pooh. It’s not just that the jokes came a bit too fast and the cuts were a bit too quick. There was too much plot, too much formula, too much didacticism. There was conflict, rising action, an exciting climax, and an important lesson was learned about family, or valuing everyone, or something.
Milne’s stories are nothing like this. They tend to be rather aimless affairs in which more is imagined, planned or misunderstood than actually happens, much like a happy Saturday playing in one’s back yard with a few toys. Characters might behave generously or even heroically, but not, thank goodness, to resolve some theme or to teach a lesson, but simply because it was the Thing to Do.
The earliest Disney adaptations understood that how Milne told the stories, and the less-traveled paths that he and his characters found through the vagaries of language and logic, were far more important than anything that happened. What matters is not that Piglet is entirely surrounded by water, but that when he writes a message in a bottle reading “Help! Piglet,” he then has to clarify that the note is not asking Piglet for help, and so it winds up reading “Help! Piglet (Me)” (and in the book he adds on the reverse side “It’s me, Piglet, help help!”).
Fidelity to an author’s voice has never been one of Disney’s strong suits. From Pinocchio and Bambi to Peter Pan and The Jungle Book, Disney has pilfered whatever was useful and done with it as it pleased. With Alice in Wonderland, there was an effort to get Lewis Carroll right, but not a terribly successful one. The one notable exception is Milne, whose voice, though certainly Disneyfied, remains recognizably his own in those early shorts and in the 1977 compilation The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
That voice, lost in the non-Milne stories of Disney’s recent Pooh fare, is now back in Winnie the Pooh, which is based on three previously unadapted Milne stories, “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One,” “In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump” and “In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings.”
Here is a typical exchange from the episode with Eeyore’s tail: Owl suggests that they issue a reward for the lost tail, and Pooh, hearing the word “issue,” thinks Owl has sneezed. Owl protests that he didn’t sneeze, but Pooh is sure he did. Owl objects, “You can’t sneeze without knowing it.” Pooh’s response is: “Well … you can’t know it without something having been sneezed.” If you aren’t going to have dialogue like this, what is the point of having it in the Hundred Acre Wood?
Winnie the Pooh looks back for inspiration not only to Milne’s stories, but to Disney’s Many Adventures and its ilk. Behind this, I suppose is the old-school Disney nostalgia of John Lasseter. Like those old episodes, Winnie the Pooh is aware that the Pooh stories were written to be read aloud and that character’s storybook milieu is as much a part of his natural environment as the Hundred Acre Wood.
Pooh and his friends thus inhabit a watercolor world that appears on the pages of a book alongside the printed words of the story, allowing them to interact with the letters on the pages and jump over the book’s spine from one page to another. The narrator, too, is a character in his own right, and he and Pooh occasionally confer on what is meant to happen next, or what a word means, and that sort of thing. Some have described this as “breaking the fourth wall,” but that metaphor from stagecraft isn’t quite right for this sort of blurring of diegetic boundaries.
A couple of inspired surreal musical sequences recall the brilliant, unsettling “Heffalumps and Woozles” bit from “Blustery Day” (as well as precedents like Dumbo’s celebrated “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence). One involves the intimidating Backson, another Milnean bogeyman based on a misunderstanding, animated here in an appealing chalk-on-chalkboard style. Then there’s a deceptively harmonious, sickly-sweet sequence in which a honey-deprived Pooh slips into a dreamy state in which he sees honey and honey pots everywhere he looks.
As they should be, the moral elements are low-key and matter of fact. Pooh must force himself to put thoughts of honey out of his head and think of Christopher Robin, who is supposed to be in danger (of course it’s a misunderstanding). Then, forced to choose between an actual pot of honey and helping a friend who really is in an unhappy state, Pooh regretfully defers his own gratification to help his friend — a modest act of heroism that goes unnoticed, though not unrewarded.
I don’t want to overpraise this modest little film. Barely an hour long, padded with a pleasant short called The Ballad of Nessie that looks like 1960s-era Disney and plays like an homage to Dr. Seuss (with a moral about how it’s okay to cry), it’s a slight affair, as any Pooh feature would be. Milne’s tales are not crafted to run feature length. Many Adventures wasn’t a true feature, but three sequential episodes. Winnie the Pooh weaves together three storylines into the events of a single day, making for a tale about as successful a feature-length Pooh story could be.
This has been a dreadful summer for family films. Spring brought us Rio and Kung Fu Panda 2, but since then, it’s been a wasteland. Last week’s Zookeeper was the bottom of the barrel, with Mr. Popper’s Penguins not far behind. Even ever-reliable Pixar stumbled with the frantic, forgettable Cars 2. And what’s on the horizon? Lord, give me strength: It’s Smurfs.
Running down that lineup, replete with fast-paced gags, snarky humor and action, I wonder whether a film as gentle and retro as Winnie the Pooh can possibly find an audience today. I hope so. It deserves to. At any rate, if it can’t find its audience this summer, there is no audience. And that would be a shame, and our children’s loss.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Brief mildly unsettling imagery. Fine family viewing.