Thursday, March 23, 2017

Disney's Winnie the Pooh (2011) (Movie Review)

       In 1926, a British author by the name of A. A. Milne began publishing a series of children’s books called the Winnie the Pooh series, and were inspired by the imagination of his real-life son Christopher Robin Milne. This series of books about a cute little teddy bear going on fun little adventures have become beloved literary classics, and yet … the characters true fame began when Disney brought him over to the West for his many animated productions. In 1977 Walt Disney animated studios released their 22nd theatrical film titled “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”, and that was just the beginning. 

Winnie the Pooh has sense become one of the most celebrated icons from Disney, and one of the most beloved children’s characters of all time. I remember liking the movie “okay” as a kid, but what I really loved was the 90’s TV show “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. That’s where I really fell in love with all the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood, and I just couldn't get enough of it. Heck, even as an adult, that catchy theme song still sneaks its way into my head. Following after the show’s success were several other Winnie the Pooh movies distributed by Disney TV studios, some of which were actually released in the theater. However, there wasn’t another movie distributed by Walt Disney studios until 2011, with the release of their 51st animated classic simply titled “Winnie the Pooh”. That title may be a little too simple for the films own good, but I’m getting ahead of myself. More to the point, this film currently has the distinction of being the very last traditionally hand drawn animated movie from Disney studios, ending a mighty legacy of children’s entertainment. Did it close everything on a high note, or something average to a fault … let’s step back into the Hundred Acre Wood one last time to find out.

     Now the strength of the Pooh franchise comes from the charm or the emotional beats of an experience, rather than a compelling narrative or layered story, which is why the 1977 movie worked so well as an anthology picture. This 2011 sequel by contrast doesn’t follow an anthology format, but it’s not exactly a flowing narrative either. It’s more like a collection of charming little vignette’s strung together on a linear thread. The movie begins with Pooh awakening to the narrator, and he claims that Pooh has something very important to do. Being a bear with a one-track mind, Pooh thinks the most important thing is filling his rumbly tummy with some sweet honey. He’s unfortunately rather shorthanded with honey at the moment, and goes off searching for more. Along the way, he comes across his gloomy friend Eeyore, who’s currently missing his tail. Thus, the challenge is on for Pooh to look past his single-minded obsession with honey, and help his friend find what he lost. In the end, a message is learned about thinking of others before yourself, which is absolutely perfect … for a ten-minuet episode of the TV show. Yeah, for a theatrical movie that’s plainly titled “Winnie the Pooh”, there’s really nothing special explored with his character. He has a fairly basic arc, and a good lesion is learned, but nothing really deeper than that. Even the original 1977 movie presented the character as an allegory for keeping your childhood innocents alive while still growing-up, but no-such allegorical subtext here. 

      The movie is also clearly trying to recapture the laid-back tone and atmosphere of the first movie, but there’s one big difference. That film was a collection of stories told over the course of a year, whereas this film focuses on two events over the course of a single day, and it’s hard to capture a feeling of “life and times” in such a short span of time. There’s also kind of a randomly placed subplot, in which a mis-read letter has everyone thinking the boy Christopher Robin was captured by a monstrous creature called the Backson. Now everyone is up in arms to try capturing this monster, and rescuing their friend. Even though this takes up a huge chunk of the screen time, I still call this a subplot, because once everything gets resolved … things just continue on like that never happened. It also had absolutely no bearing on Winnie the Pooh’s arc, and no tie-in to the message. Compare this to the TV movie titled "Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin". That film took the concept of a missing Christopher Robin, wove the entire experience around it, put a lot of emotional focus on Pooh lamenting the absence of his friend, as well as learning that if he’s not physically present, he’ll always be there in his heart, and it was a consistent narrative. However, I once again have to point out that the strength of Pooh Bear isn’t so much from a flowing narrative, but a charming experience. While the script of the 2011 “Winnie the Pooh” is derivative to a fault, it’s still unmistakably a pleasant experience with these lovable characters.

      There may not be much depth or subtext to the character of Winnie the Pooh in this film, but he’s still affectionately lovable as a screen presence, and he absolutely caries the film. I actually felt that Winnie the Pooh was even more charming and lovable in this film than he was in the original movie, and it was such a pleasant reminder as to why everyone loves this character so much. He’s like the most purely innocent creature in existence, and he’s proven the test of time quiet well. After nearly three decades, it’s such a joy to hear Jim Cummings continuing to do the voice work for Winnie the Pooh. He may not have been the first vocal talent to bring the character to life, but he’s stuck with him the longest, and understands the character better than anyone else alive right now. It’s also nice hearing him reprise his other signature role of Tigger, but I feel his character gets less to do in the movie, and fails to leave as big an impression ... which is unfortunate as he was always my favorite character. Also, the character Gopher was another childhood favorite of mine, and he’s completely absent … what’s up with that? He may not have been in the book, but he was in the 1977 movie, and a regular character on the TV show, so why hasn’t he had a life beyond that?  

      Another thing that took me out a little is despite the return of all these familiar characters like Piglet, Kanga, Roo and so forth, all their voices are different … not bad, but a little distracting, and some of the personalities didn’t match. For example, Owl this time around is voiced by Craig Ferguson, who’s a great talent, but the character acts far nuttier than before, and I just find that an odd choice. The character animation by contrast is consistently strong, and I love watching how they all move about on screen. 

Rabbit for example never did anything for me, but the way he’s animated, his facial reactions and his energized movements have me chuckling every time he’s on screen. I also like that they touched up Christopher Robins design by giving him full human eyes as opposed to the dot eyes, which I never liked. Another great talent I have to mention is John Cleese as the narrator, who captures the spirit of the original, while also bringing his own trade mark style of comedy. John Cleese has always been one of my favorite British comedians, and he hits that note of being funny, without going too far. At last, I really like that we have a new imaginative threat in the form of the Backson. I especially love the post credit scene showing that the creature really exists, and he’s just a clumsy goof that collects things lying around. I should also note that it was the final role for Huell Howser before he sadly passed away. Also, while the Backson probably won’t be remembered among Disney’s rouges, “The Backson Song” should have a secure spot among the best villain numbers. It’s bursting with energy, the lyrics are clever, and the whole sequence is presented in this unique chalk drawn animation style.

        On that note, the music by Henry Jackman is perfect in every way, and the songs are actually quite good when jugged by their standards. 

These songs were written by Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Lopez, who are also credible for writing the songs from “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon”.  While I typically don’t hold Pooh Bear songs in the same high standards of other Disney animation … these are exceptionally good, and leave me feeling all warm and cheerful. For example, Pooh is introduced singing “The Tummy Song”, which doesn’t sound too special on paper, yet Jim Cummings high spirited vocals laced with an upscale musical tempo makes this a highly delightful song number. One of the funnier musical numbers is titled “It’s Gonna Be Great”, which puts the spot light on Tigger as he tries to liven up Eeyore. Just giving Tigger a goofy song number is a plus in of itself, and is one of the characters only real highlights in the film. The majority of the remaining songs aren’t exactly memorable, but their charming within the moment. I really love the call backs to the first film, especially the opening “Winnie the Pooh” song sequence, which is a loving recreation of the original … but this time they remembered to include Tigger, which was great. I also love the end titles, witch feature funny sill photo backdrops, and have the characters playing around with the rolling credits. My absolute favorite song number by far is titled “Everything is Honey”, which features Pooh lost in a day-dream about a world made of honey. Not only is this song upbeat and catchy, but the animation and visuals on display are wonderful. One little nit-pick is that I would have liked Keane’s "Somewhere Only We Know" to be somewhere in the film, as it was in the trailers, and it would have been the icing on the cake.                      

     Aside from the cheerful music and lovable characters, there’s just something about the presentation that just feels whimsical … in a way that I feel is lacking from most current animated movies. It’s great to return back to traditional 2D animation, as opposed to all those CGI flicks that get released all the time, but there’s also this magic touch to the color pallet and forest design that just carries this absorbing atmosphere. The backgrounds are traditionally sketchy, but there’s also just the right amount of digital effects added in to give it a contemporary look. Once again like in the first movie, there’s no shortage of visual gags and forth wall jokes revolving around the chapter book they’re in, like when the characters run into the letters or get lost in a paragraph. The whole third act focuses on our characters getting stuck in a deep pit, and I’m not going to lie … this scene produced some genuinely big laughs. Just when you think the joke runs out, something else happens in this situation that makes it even funnier. This is exactly the kind of climax appropriate for Winnie the Pooh standards, as it’s just a silly situation, and we see how everyone reacts to it in their own distinctly amusing way.

     In the end, “Winnie the Pooh” is a movie clearly aimed at little kids, but adults can also enjoy watching it with them, and find it delightful on some nostalgic level. It’s funny, the songs are really nice, it’s warmly cheerful, has a decent enough message, and in many respects, I find this the most “fun” of the Winnie the Pooh films. Was this a perfect high note to close Disney’s traditionally hand drawn animation films on … no, not even close … but at least it was something sweet, and enjoyable. I have to admit that the film is kind of simplistic to a fault, as again it’s called “Winnie the Pooh”, but doesn’t really do much with him, at least nothing more then what a single episode of the TV show might have done. While this movie is unmistakably charming to watch, it also doesn’t stick with me after words, nor is it something I need to watch again. Unless you’re a little kid, or have a lot of fondness for the character, it’s really nothing demanding. Still, when jugged by its own standards, I can’t help but like this film for what it is, and I would love to share it with the next generation of kids to come.      

I give Disney’s 2011 animated classic “Winnie the Pooh” … 3 ½ stars out of 5.

The End

Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) (Movie Review)

     Walt Disney was often described as a cinematic titan who was taken before his time, yet the influence and legacy he left behind was tremendous. Most fans are quick to say that “The Jungle Book” was his last animated picture, and close enough, as he did pass away during the making of that production. However, I believe his last true animated gift to both children and families alike was the 1977 picture titled “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. This was the studios 22nd animated picture, and premiered a full ten years after his passing. How then could I claim this as Walt Disney’s final masterpiece … well, because the creation and history of this film is very different from any other Disney production. 

Walt Disney was already a longtime admirer of the Winnie the Pooh books by Author A.A. Milne, and frequently read them to his little girls. As such, it was a passion project for him to adapt the character in the form of Disney animation, but not through a movie, as he knew there was only one way to properly capture the spirit of the source material. It was his decision that a series of short films starring Winnie the Pooh would be paired with theatrical live-action Disney productions, and they’d cover a variety of different mini-adventures in Pooh’s home of the Hundred Acre Wood. It was a mere six months after the premier of the first Winnie Pooh short that Walt Disney tragically passed away due to throat cancer, but he still made the blue prints of where he wanted the character to go in the years ahead. In a strange way, his career was book-ended with the birth of two iconic cartoon characters … Mickey Mouse being the one who started it all, and Winnie the Pooh being the one who carried the torch after his passing. 

    The ensuing 1977 movie titled “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” rounded up Disney’s first three Winnie the Pooh shorts, with additional animated segues and new dialog added in to bridge them together into one flowing picture. The result … in my view … is a minor masterpiece. I say “minor” because the film is really nothing huge or epic, yet it’s absolutely perfect when viewed by its own standards. There’s a gentle and humble nature to the film that can entertain little kids, while also helping them grow and mature, and probably in ways they don't even realize. Taking place roughly over the course of a year in the imaginative land of the Hundred Acre Wood, we see the various mini-ventures, obstacles and situations that Pooh and friends get into … how they solve problems together, and how they treat one another with kindness in the face of dilemmas. It creates this very unique and warm atmosphere in which I don’t even care if the stories are light … I just love being around these characters, and seeing how their unique personalities bounce off one-another. In the end, the Hundred Acre wood is all a fantasy that exists in the mind of a small boy named Christopher Robin, and it serves as a metaphor of a special where your imaginative childhood innocence continues to live, even as you grow older.

     In my opinion, Winnie the Pooh is one of the most important animated characters for kids to grow up with, as there’s something extra to him that goes beyond just being a cute mascot. The innocent, gentle and light-hearted nature of Winnie the Pooh is a way of telling meaningful stories of friendship, discovering courage, giving to others, and it’s all conveyed in way that doesn’t feel like a lecture. 

Winnie the Pooh himself represents the innocents of childhood, discovering new things in life, what we can take from them, and it allows kids to connect with him in a personal way. Sterling Holloway’s iconic vocal portrayal of the character set the standard of how Winnie the Pooh would be presented in all forms of media, and even though I’ve always had more fondness for Jim Cummings in the role ... I still can’t ignore the talent who started it all. It’s almost pointless to name-off every other character in the Hundred Acre Wood, as they’ve all become house hold names, but imagine for a moment what they’d be like today without Disney bringing them to life in animation form. The books might still be known to most British families, but the characters wouldn’t be the childhood mascots they are today if it wasn’t for this Disney production. 
One minor thing to note is that everyone’s favorite gloomy Donkey Eeyore is barley present in this film. Isn’t that curious, he’s one of the franchises most identifiable characters, and yet, he’s barley more than an extra in this first movie. Of course, there’s the classic opening in Christopher Robins bed room, paired with the narration, as well as the initial “Winnie the Pooh” theme song that introduces us to the characters. We can thank the Sherman Brothers for the iconic songs and music that added to the identity of the character. It’s such a simple opening that carries it’s a distinct charm, and draws me right in. Two little details I always loved pointing out as a kid were that Piglets design didn’t match how he’d look in the rest of the film, and that Tigger for whatever reason isn’t mentioned at all in the introduction. I especially love the films Forth-Wall hummer, as the characters frequently interact with the narrator, and there’s a lot of visual gags revolving around the chapter book their in. 

The best way to go from here is to cover the individual shorts as their presented in the film, beginning with …

The Honey Tree

In his first mis-venture, Pooh’s rumbly tummy leads him into a series of antics in which he tries to get honey from a Bee hive. After the Bee’s prove impossible to get around, Pooh tries to get his sweets from his neighbor Rabbit … who’s up to his wits with Pooh’s narrow minded obsession. It becomes a clear case of over-eating when Pooh gets himself stuck in Rabbits front door, leaving the others to problem-solve how to get him out. While an okay start, this was admittedly my least favorite of the segments. Most of our favorite characters are absent, and the set-up gets a tad repetitive after a while. Still, there are some highlights, namely Rabbits attitude after literally getting stuck with Pooh as a house guest. Really, the best thing about Rabbit are his reactions to the mischief characters cause around him, and he gets some good laughs here. This short is also credible for introducing us to the character Gopher, who was never in the books, yet has always stuck with me as one of my favorites of the Hundred Acre Wood characters. Something about his voice and mannerism just made the character stand out, and I like that Gopher even acknowledges he’s not from the book. Memorable songs from this short include “I’m Just a Little Black Rain Cloud”, which was part of Pooh's plan to fool the Bee’s, and Pooh’s little warm up jingle called “Up, Down, Touch the Ground” occasionally sneaks into my subconscious when I'm stretching.  

The adventures of Pooh and friends continue with …        

The Blustery Day

The winds of change are quite literally on the horizon, as the face of the Hundred Acre wood is reshaped by increasingly bad weather. First, it’s a freak windstorm threatening to blow everyone away, and then a flood forces everyone out of house and home. Now more than ever, our friends need to be there for each other to weather the storm. This chapter initially won the Academy Award for best Animated Short, and it’s absolutely my favorite segment of the film. Not only containing the funniest predicaments, but it also sustains the best atmosphere, as there’s something about changing weather, and its escalation that puts me right in the thick of things. It’s also in this short that we’re introduced to both Tigger and Piglet for the first time, the ladder of whom takes center stage as Pooh’s best friend, and the one who needs the most help braving the weather. It’s kind of embarrassing to note that as a kid, I was always under the impression that Pigglet was a girl … silly me. Actually, I never liked that the only female character was Kanga, as she’s a grown mother, and not someone that little girls could connect too. Well, girls seem to connect to Piglet, and I suppose that counts for something. I also need to give credit to voice actor John Fiedler, who brought Piglet to life with his signature voice. Now I’ve seen John Fiedler in a number of live action roles in films like “12 Angry Men” “True Grit”, as well some of my favorite episodes of both “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone”, and every time I see him, he has that exact same high pitched Piglet voice.  

    This chapter also makes great use of Owl, and highlights just how funny he be in the face of certain perils. I think most people look back on Owl as the smart guy who conveys friendly words of wisdom, but he actually has a phew quirks. He’s madly in love with the sound of his voice, and will just prattle on and on about whatever comes to mind. I think the funniest little scene is when Pooh and Piglet literally drop in for tea, and Owl gets so lost in his self-monologue that he’s completely oblivious to the heavy winds rocking his house, and causing problems for his guests. One of the more touching scenes revolves around Piglet giving his house to Owl after his got destroyed by the storm. Pooh, being touched by his friend’s selflessness invites Piglet to live with him, which is a detail I never noticed as a kid ... Pooh and Piglet were roommates.

      My favorite scene of all is when the increasingly bad weather gets to Pooh’s anxiety, and he slips into a nightmare revolving around mischievous beasts that might come after his honey. Said threats come in the form of nasty creatures called Woozles and Hefalumps, who’ve somehow become memorable Disney rouges, despite never physically appearing on screen. This whole trippy dream sequence is like a call back to the Pink Elephants from “Dumbo” (even recycling some cell-animation), and is easily the most inventive animation highlight of the film. While the paired “Hefalumps and Woozles” theme song is nothing really special, I always loved the creativity in the designs and visuals on display. Nothing this strange or imaginative ever happens again in the film, so it really stands out as one of those memorable oddball highlights. 

Now we come to the final episode titled …
Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too

After being introduced in the last chapter, Tigger finally takes center stage, and his bouncy antics are getting on everyone’s nerves. Especially Rabbit, who’s dead set on snuffing the bounce out of him, and thus, he sets up various plans to change his cheery personality around. Of all the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood, Tigger was always my childhood favorite, and I still think he’s the best thing about the whole film. His tops are made of rubber, his bottom made of springs, he’s bouncy, prouncy and offers no shortage of FUN, FUN, FUN, the most wonderful thing about Tigger is ... well, let’s just say there’s no other character like him. There’s something about the relentless cheer and excitement of Tigger that instantly has me smiling from ear to ear. As a kid, I wanted to be just like Tigger, the one with all the energy and excitement in the room, and one who would figuratively bounce off everything that was going on. Paul Winchell not only gave Tigger his voice, but also breathed life into the characters signature personality and mannerism. This short also highlights Tigger’s friendship with Roo, which is nothing short of delightful. On his own, Roo would have just been a one-note kid character, but pair him with Tigger and he becomes something sweet. In the end, the two get stuck in a tree, and it’s up to their friends to talk them down. It’s about as close to a climax as we get, and it’s all the film really needs.

    The actual ending comes in Chapter X, in which it’s time to say goodbye. This ending was never part of any of the three shorts, was completely original to the film, and it’s easily the emotional highlight of the movie. Christopher Robin is seen less and less in the woods, and it’s soon revealed that he’s been going to school. He then shows up one day to have a talk with Winnie the Pooh, and in a very mature presentation, it’s established that it’s time to grow up and except change. While I never found Christopher Robin an especially fun character to have on screen, this ending makes him a terrific role model for viewers both young and young at heart. There’s nothing overly sentimental in this conversation, or needlessly dramatic, it’s just the boy excepting that he needs to grow-up, move on to the next chapter of his life, but promises that he’ll always carry with him the warmth and magic of his childhood friends. In a sense, I think this might just be the most mature message Disney has ever conveyed in any of their films, as it speaks to both kids and adults. We all have our figurative Hundred Acre Woods, and while we shouldn’t live in them, we should still revisit them once in a while … just to rediscover that special part of ourselves that made our childhoods feel magical, and helped shape us into the adults we are now.

     I’d be lying if I said this was a Disney movie I’d want to pull out and watch on my own, but I love sharing it with kids, and I think it offers … not just a simpler form of entertainment, but one that’s kind of mature. Kids these days have no shortage of films and programming that goes for the basic flashy spectacles, obnoxious hummer and relentless energy, so I think it’s healthy for them to be exposed to something calmer, a little slower paced, but still engaging to watch. “The Many Adventures of Winne the Pooh” is just that, a simple, but fulfilling experience, with lovable characters, and a lot of heart. 

Winnie the Pooh has a peculiar strength in which he can lure you in with very little, and treat you with so much. If Walt Disney had lived to see this film in its full form, I think he would have been very proud of it, maybe even more so then his other animated offerings. It’s a film that not only feels faithful to its source material, but it perfectly captures the spirit of A.A. Milne, while giving it an identifiable Disney makeover. As of now, “The Many Adventures of Winne the Pooh” is the only other animated Disney movie with a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it really is kind of perfect in its own simple way. Certainly not one of my absolute favorites, but it doesn’t have to be a favorite in order for me to respect it. Winnie the Pooh is a character that I’d want every child to grow up with, and I sincerely hope this movie doesn’t get lost in the sea of modern entertainment. It’s definitely something to expose to kids while their still bright eyed and filled with wonder. Weather it was a colorful adventure in the woods, or learning valuable life lesions, I’ll always have fond memories of that magical forest, and the humble characters that lived within it.    

I give Disney’s 1977 animated classic “The Many Adventures of Winne the Pooh” … 4 ½ stars out of 5.