With Winnie the Pooh opening in theatres this week, we’re bumping our review from the LA Film Festival. Harry Potter isn’t the only film to see this weekend; if you’re over the Harry-hype or your kids aren’t old enough for Potter yet, please check out Winnie the Pooh.
When it was first announced that Disney was going to do a hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh movie, specifically harking back to their 1970 Winnie the Pooh films (shorts collected as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), I greeted the news with both interest and apprehension. Interest because I’m a fan of hand-drawn animation and Winnie the Pooh, and apprehension because there are a lot of ways Disney could’ve screwed this up. As it turns out, the only possible criticism I could see leveled at the new Winnie the Pooh film is that it’s too perfect an imitator of the original films. However, I would not make that criticism myself, because I loved the originals, and I loved this new addition to the Disney Winnie the Pooh corpus.
After a live-action opening introducing us to Christopher Robin’s room and his stuffed animals (almost the same opening that tied together The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), the narrator jumps us straight into the Hundred Acre Wood, reading from an on-screen storybook about Pooh waking up and feeling a rumbly in his tumbly. But what initially seems to be just a literary framing device, tying the film we’re about to see to A.A. Milne’s original tales, turns out to be a much more involved conceit, as Pooh and the other characters talk back to the narrator and the actual words on the page of the book often become part of the story. This is rather precious, to be sure, but blurring the lines between stories and narrators, or between the story on the page and the written material itself, is an element of storytelling that grabs me every time, and I was charmed immediately.
The film combines the story of Eeyore’s lost tail and the one with our intrepid heroes trying to capture the monstrous Backson, which they think has kidnapped Christopher Robin. I was very familiar with the first story, not as much with the second, and the way they tied them together worked pretty well, even though it was hard to disguise that they were originally separate. All the characters are perfectly intact, with Jim Cummings reprising his customary roles as Pooh and Tigger, while Craig Ferguson and Bud Luckey particularly distinguish themselves in their renditions of Owl and Eeyore, respectively. The characterization of Piglet seemed a tad off to me at first, but by the middle was as spot-on as the others.
The animation style is totally recognizable based on the earlier films and E.H. Shepard’s original drawings, but there’s still room for surprises, such as the very differently-animated section where Owl describes the Backson by drawing on a slate. In addition, even ordinary moments benefit from the way hand-drawn animation excels at exaggerating certain expressions – many of Rabbit’s double-takes, for example, are almost Looney Tunes lite, something that CGI doesn’t manage quite as well.
Also a departure from most current movies aimed at kids, the humor here all arises out of the characters and the situations – there a no pop culture references, or cooler-than-thou attitudes. But the film is warm and funny, with a gently self-deprecating streak that’s extremely refreshing. A fair bit of the humor for adults and older kids also comes from the way the characters seem to come up with the right solutions (“hmmm, ‘Backson’ kind of sounds like ‘back soon’”), but then proceed to carry on with the adventure anyway. None of this is exaggerated, though, leaving you just enough to feel smart without condescending to the characters. And also the excellent meta-level of the words on the page affecting the action will be a source of humor and interest for most.
For adults who remember the first movie, this will be a great nostalgia trip and a chance to see the Hundred Acre Wood with a new sheen (and a new-but-classic rendition of the main theme from Zooey Deschanel). For animation fans, this is a lovely example of classic hand-drawn animation, the likes of which are hard to come by these days. And for parents and children, it’s a great alternative to children’s entertainment which seems to be getting more bombastic and frenetic all the time. The part with the Backson is perhaps a little bit scary, judging from the little girl next to me (aged about four or five), but a quick word from mom reassured her and she enjoyed the rest of the film. And I enjoyed every second of it – nostalgic adult/animation fan/child-at-heart that I am.
Directors: Stephen J. Anderson, Don Hall
Producers: Peter Del Vacho, Clark Spencer
Starring: Jim Cummings, Craig Ferguson, John Cleese, Tom Kenny, Bud Luckey, Travis Oates, Jack Boulter, Kristen Anderson-Lopez
Running Time: 69 min
Country/Language: USA, English
US Theatrical Release Date: July 15, Walt Disney