Review: Winnie the Pooh

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Thirty-seven years after the last of the three short films that compiled to make The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Walt Disney Animation attempts to recapture the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood and its residents. Does it succeed?

For the large part, yes. The Many Adventures… is a film that is close to my heart, and I was hit by a marvelous pang of nostalgia as the opening shot of the new film began, panning round an antiquated, live-action room, wonderfully realised and filled with old toys, including of course, the stuffed animals that make up the colourful cast of characters. It was a great homage to the introduction of the old film, and John Cleese does a fine job at narrating (this opening scene and the rest of the movie). In fact, that’s what a lot of the film is: a nod to the old films, although there are new adjustments spotted about the place.

Of course, one of the biggest draws of the film is that it utilises the same style of animation present in the short films of old. And, like Sylvain Chomet’s L’illusioniste last year, Winnie the Pooh very much makes the case for hand-drawn animation. The watercolour backgrounds and the wood look absolutely beautiful, and are painted in such a great detail that is missing from the often awful-looking, lazy, simplistic animation that makes up most of today’s cartoons. The characters are the same ones we all know, and they haven’t changed a bit, visually. Well, almost. The animators have gone to extra lengths to make them look the same, and evoke the same old facial expressions, and mostly do an excellent job.

While none of the original voice actors are present to give these characters life (all sadly deceased or too old for their roles), all of the new voice actors fit in well. Jim Cummings does the best job at re-enacting ye olde Pooh and Tigger, but you can’t expect all the characters to sound exactly the same forty years on, and I didn’t have a problem with any of the changes. It’s the best you could hope for.

The characters themselves, as well as being voiced well, have been written brilliantly, and haven’t lost any of their personality over the years. There is an exchange near the beginning of the film between Pooh, Eeyore and Owl that had me genuinely laughing out loud, as well as a moment a few minutes later with Pooh and Tigger. There is such a wonderful charm to these characters, and the dialogue early on works on this. It’s a shame that the humour dies down a bit as the film carries on, but the character traits are still there. Owl is hilariously pompous, Tigger thinks he is a hero, Rabbit’s reactions to the stupidity around him are priceless, and Eeyore’s constant downbeat manner (he seems to share a worldview with myself) is ironically, a joy to watch.

These aren’t the only facets of the film carried over from the original three shorts, as it also utilises the fourth wall interaction between the narrator and Pooh, as well as characters coming into contact with the words of the book around them. These moments are always pretty clever, and create a nice sense of liveliness and involvement within John Cleese’s voice. The opening itself goes on to recreate the animated Hundred Acre Wood map sequence with the accompanying theme song (with the addition of Tigger now), this time sung by Zooey Deschanel. Getting Deschanel to record a rendition of the theme song was clearly an attempt to “update” it, although I wasn’t a fan. If everything else was going to be a recollection of the original shorts, then I reckon a nice choral version as in The Many Adventures… would have been just fine. Zooey sings another song during the end credits (slightly reminiscent of her efforts in musical duo She & Him), and a couple more during the film, and they’re more sickly sweet than the gallons upon gallons of gooey honey that Pooh dreams about. They were a bit too twee. And there were a few too many musical numbers in the film as it was (The Many Adventures… only had two fully-fledged ones I believe; the theme tune, and the Dumbo-inspired “Heffalumps and Woozles”). If some of them were as good as those penned by Sammy Fain in the ’50s, the Sherman Brothers in the ’60s and ’70s, or Alan Menken in the ’90s, then that’d be fine, but unfortunately none of them are catchy or memorable at all, and they kind of eat up the runtime.

Winnie the Pooh is only 70 minutes long, and while that’s only five minutes short of the 1977 film, I thought it wasn’t long enough. Pixar has been putting out films upwards of an hour and a half, which have all fared brilliantly, and that sort of length could’ve worked here. Just a bit more time to see more of the characters. I was upset to see that a story involving Rabbit’s “friends and relations” that John Lasseter had talked about in 2009 was seemingly cut in production, as there is no hint of it in the final film. He had said the characters weren’t going to be “as socially aware as the other residents of the Hundred Acre Wood,” which I thought sounded a hilarious set-up.

The story and pacing in Winnie the Pooh do not opt towards one single, cohesive narrative, nor do they turn completely towards the episodic structure of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Instead they sporadically introduce threads from the various stories in A.A. Milne’s books, which all come together at the end. It can make things feel jagged at times; none of the characters are really working towards one big thing in particular. You can see Burny Mattison’s presence as lead story artist, having worked on the previous Pooh shorts, though a larger arc could have worked in the film’s favour. Going in one direction all the way (either episodic or single plotline) would have worked out better than meandering between the two, which Winnie the Pooh seems to do. It was far from boring though, and the majority of the film (songs aside) was a pleasure to watch.

That said, one of the main things I had a problem with was the ending. Taking into account the hugely emotional and wonderful send-off Woody, Buzz and co. were given in last year’s Toy Story 3, it was pretty disappointing to see Winnie the Pooh end so abruptly. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh had a lovely, bittersweet scene in which Christopher Robin is talking about growing up, and what this will mean, and I even recall the direct-to-video Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin having a similarly touching moment. Our new Winnie the Pooh simply ends seconds after Pooh wins a giant pot of hunny. If this is the last time we will see such a large Pooh release from Walt Disney Animation, it is sad to see it go on such a short note.

Winnie the Pooh was accompanied by two animated shorts: the long awaited The Ballad of Nessie, and an episode of something dreadful from Disney Junior, called Jake and the Neverland Pirates.

I’d been looking forward to The Ballad of Nessie since it was announced a few years back, when Disney said they’d be making a return to animated shorts preceding their features. This one tells the story of the Loch Ness Monster, and is narrated, of course, by Billy Connolly. The plot is nice enough, but didn’t have much special that I could see. I really liked the look of the abstract, textured backgrounds in the short, but felt the actual characters could have done with the same non-flat style. It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed the 2007 Goofy throwback How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, which was also directed by Stevie Wermers-Skelton and Kevin Deters. And The Ballad of Nessie certainly isn’t a scratch on Pixar’s short output, considering Day & Night, Lifted, Geri’s Game, etc.

Although admittedly, it was hard to fully concentrate when I was seated in front of a child who has not yet mastered the arts of Eating Popcorn at an Acceptable Volume, Not Kicking the Chair in Front of You, and Not Shouting Out “Eeyore!” for No Particular Reason. I’ll be sure to watch it again when the film comes out on blu-ray.

I have never heard of this Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and never want to associate with it again. I understand that it’s just a little bit in front of the feature for the kiddies, but while Disney managed to respect the classic Winnie the Pooh films with the movie, they simultaneously managed to desecrate the legacy of 1953′s Peter Pan, my all-time favourite animated film. Jake… is a crudely animated series in which three child pirates go up against Captain Hook and Smee in various miscellaneous ventures. This one had something to do with a goldfish. Hook and Smee have naturally been re-drawn to match the style of this cartoon, and it’s like Disney does with many such franchises. Children enjoy Peter Pan as it is, don’t they? Why do the character designs need to be simplified even more?

Even the three year-olds in the screening I was at seemed too dignified to acknowledge the characters’ requests for the audience to shout along, and completely ignored “COME ON, FLY WITH US!!!” Lucky for everyone else, I guess. Animation studios have proven time and time again that it is possible to produce something that is enjoyable for both children and adults, but this certainly isn’t. Very small children will accept it, so fret not with your little ‘uns, but considering the feature it was in front of managed to maintain a charm that adults can welcome, something on the same level as that or The Ballad of Nessie would have been much more appropriate (in terms of quality, if anything else). In summary, it’s filler.

I will stop ranting about that now.

Overall, Winnie the Pooh is a disappointing, but ultimately enjoyable new story with classic characters many of us have grown up with. Even if you don’t like it, it’s only 70 minutes long, so not unbearable at all if you are sitting through it with your kids wishing you were watching, erm…something else. Though it’s not just for children, as there are chuckles to be had for everyone, especially if you have childhood memories associated with the Hundred Acre Wood. I enjoyed it quite a lot, but had enough reservations that I didn’t love it. I loved the characters more than the film as a whole; if anything else, it made me want to put on my Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh DVD as soon as possible. Like a lot of Disney’s new output, it was good, getting there – but not as great as I’d have liked.

7/10

Winnie the Pooh is out in the UK now, and opens in the US on July 15th.

P.S. Diehard fans of A.A. Milne’s stories will be pleased to hear that Gopher is gone. I’ve read and loved the books, but I kinda missed him.

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