20 July 2011

Disney’s Latest ‘Winnie the Pooh’

With Disney’s latest foray into the Hundred-Acre Wood, I sensed again that the studio’s animation department (lately headed by John Lasseter, who brought Pixar to glory) is engaged in a serious, studious quest to rediscover what used to make its movies special. Surely it’s not nostalgia alone that makes us remember Lady and the Tramp more fondly than Brother Bear. So with Winnie the Pooh as with the recent Tangled, you can see Disney’s animators returning to specific scenes and elements from earlier, well-beloved films. Tangled ripped off “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid, for example, but Winnie the Pooh mines other Pooh movies and comes up with a modest, sweet entertainment that proudly upholds the tradition.

Characters scamper among the printed pages of a Pooh book, just as they did in the very first short subject, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, in 1966, and a kindly English gentleman narrates: now it’s John Cleese, then it was Sebastian Cabot. Character voices are perfectly matched to their predecessors, and they behave like themselves, too. Backgrounds again resemble the pen-and-ink and colored-wash illustrations by E.H. Shepard, color plates in fancier editions of A.A. Milne’s books, so that even when the foreground figures are a bit cruder (Piglet is barely a drawing at all), we get an atmosphere rich in mood and interest.

It must be very grand to know how to read.

Most importantly, the screenplay is based on three original Milne stories, so that you never feel as if the studio is taking unfair advantage of us: this time out, they’re not presenting us with tales told by a committee, slapping the Pooh label on any old “product” they can come up with, in confidence we’ll buy it anyway, and cheapening the beloved figures as they stray farther and father from their sources. Too often, Pooh feels like a mere market brand in Disney’s hands — but here, under the direction of Stephen Anderson and Don Hall, we’re getting the real thing, or close to it.

Some of Milne’s wit has been diluted for much younger audiences than he intended, the characters are quite a bit more simple-minded than the originals, and the new songs don’t rival the gems that the Sherman Brothers wrote for the early Pooh movies. The new melodies are as simple as can be, and lyrically there’s nothing to approach The Blustery Day’s
The rain rain rain came down down down
In rushing rising rivulets.
The river crept out of its bed
And crept right into Piglet’s!
Yet the new movie, like Milne’s books, is about Thinking as much as it is about Feelings, and there are moments that get everything exactly right, notably a scene in which Piglet tries to explain to his friends that he can’t tie a knot; and the movie is even bold enough to present darker colors and (slightly) scary stuff, in tacit recognition of the possibility that we love the old classics more because they engaged all our emotions more profoundly.

When Owl describes the monstrous Backson, the animation shifts to a different style (as if drawn in chalk) and we see what the various characters imagine — they take this monster’s threats very, very personally. It’s not unlike Pooh’s nightmare of Heffalumps and Woozles, in The Blustery Day.*

The youngest audiences may not spot the new movie’s borrowings and inspirations, but as I say, older audiences are likely to find reassurance and rebuilding trust in Disney. Our friends are treated with respect and care — and they are our friends, in the way that characters from the best books and movies are. They stick with us, they grow and change with us, and they can always be counted on to make us laugh or cry.

Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree was released a few months before my fifth birthday, the perfect age to discover the stories, and my grandparents gave my brother and me Milne’s books for Christmas that year. My aunt Loey and cousin Ruth made me a stuffed Pooh that was my constant bedmate until I went to college, whereupon he retreated to a discreet but watchful position on a shelf; in later years he wore a Ramones T-shirt.**

Watching the new movie, and remembering exactly why Christopher Robin is “Gon Out Bisy Back Son” and what it is that he does in the mornings — and what that inexorably leads to — I felt a sharp pang. I have just turned 50, I was sitting alone in a movie theater, and I’m really not sure I could handle a scene in which we come to an Enchanted Place, and in which we witness both the knighting of Sir Pooh de Bear and a solemn promise never to forget. The prospect of not being allowed to do Nothing anymore seems dire indeed — and so does the assurance that, whatever happens on the way, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing. I’m sentimental that way.

But mercifully, even under Lasseter’s administration, the Disney folks aren’t ready to end this series, or even to suggest that endings are possible. The Disney Store gets a screen credit in this movie, for heaven’s sake! We are not ready to close up shop. So be it. I’m eager for the Disney animators to keep learning the lessons of the classics, and eventually to put those lessons to practical use in fresher circumstances. For now, though, a little smackerel of crass Disney commercialism seems like a good thing.***

*NOTE: The final credits offer more proof of Lasseter’s influence: like the credits in a Pixar movie, they’re very long but enlivened with appearances by the movie’s stars. Thus we see Pooh and friends clambering up and down the titles, and we even get a fleeting game of Pooh Sticks. In Pixar fashion, there’s also a list of the babies born during the movie’s production, and a tribute to one colleague who passed away. And if you stick around until the final credits are finished, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Backson yourself. Waiting for his scene is really not a hardship, provided your movie-going companions aren’t too squirmish.

**Thanks to Ruth, Pooh has a twin, a graduation present, who wears a Brown shirt.

***That said, Pooh has been overshadowed entirely by Harry Potter this week. The theater where I saw Pooh was nearly vacant, whereas ticket sales for Harry Potter have broken records (and you don’t need to be Sybill Trelawney to have foretold that particular outcome).

1 comment:

Late Blooming Mom said...

Took the kids to POOH this weekend (safely assured HP was doing great business and thus ensuring the prosperity of my employers). They enjoyed it much, the boy especially laughing at all the physical comedy, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Backson. I found the movie, like you, a welcome return to Pooh of the books and to the original Disney Pooh shorts I loved (and that I've shown my kids repeatedly on a DVD that contains them all, The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh). Having sat through the clever but assaultive on the senses and emotionally thin CARS 2 a few weeks ago, I felt a great sense of comfort-- and relief -- at POOH. But its slower pace and lower profile mean it isn't doing as much business as I'd like it to.