Posted on Criterion Cast July 29th, 2011
Looking at Christopher Robin’s room at the start of Winnie the Pooh, we see that the boy has not been tainted by modernity. His abode remains as it always was; chock full of books, stuffed animals, old-fashioned toys and an assortment of collections. It is doubtful any child’s room looks like this anymore, signifying that this is a film that will be a return to what once was. Recent animated features like Rango and Toy Story 3 are more accomplished fare with their complex and/or exquisitely executed themes balanced with wondrous storytelling, but sometimes it is nice to return to something as gentle and pure as A.A. Milne’s world of “Winnie the Pooh”. The new film may not stick with viewers amidst everything else out there, but it is a joy through and through.
A.A Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” stories are episodic in that each chapter contains a new story following the characters in Hundred Acre Wood. The film tells one story over the course of its shockingly short length (clocking in at sixty minutes), but by basing it off of three of Milne’s stories the film still feels episodic in nature. Winnie the Pooh wakes up and immediately goes in search of honey. He runs into Eeyore who has lost his tail. Christopher Robin and friends hold a contest to see who can find the best replacement for Eeyore’s tail, the prize being a large jar of honey. Christopher Robin leaves a note that is misinterpreted by Owl to mean he has been captured by a monster called the Backson. They try to find and save the child by setting up a trap. All the while, Pooh remains desperate for honey.
That pretty much sums up the plot. It is a simple tale with a simple but meaningful message about friendship that children can effortlessly grasp. There is no pop-culture of any kind to be found. Hundred Acre Wood remains untainted by the outside world and it is all the better for that. The humor grows out of the characters we know and love through their facial expressions, the way they interact with each other and the situations they find themselves in. Something the film expands upon is the idea of the narrator’s presence. The characters interact quite a bit with the narrator, voiced by John Cleese, without it ever becoming too much. The animation is hand-drawn with crisp lines in the foreground and a watercolor aesthetic in the background. The effect is understated pleasantry.
The appeal of Winnie the Pooh for children is hopefully still present in today’s culture. At the very least, I imagine toddlers would enjoy this film and not just the adults who grew up with Winnie the Pooh in their lives via the 1977 collection of featurettes titled The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh or the Milne books. There is an everlasting appeal to the title character. He is a dimwitted fool but at the same time so lovable and precious. Christopher Robin’s famous line “Silly old bear” remains the perfect response to his many foibles, misunderstandings and addictive predilection for honey. What is so wonderful about the character is that children have the advantage of knowing what the bear doesn’t. They are given the opportunity to understand a situation before he does, allowing them to be superior in their knowledge to the characters they see.
The voice work is solid but it is still jarring not having Sterling Holloway or Paul Winchell at the helm. It is the only real sign that times have changed in the Hundred Acre Wood, and that change exists outside of the films construct. The songs are serviceable but nothing more. Zooey Deschanel surprisingly does not overstay her welcome with her presence on some songs but they remain the most forgettable part of the film.
A part of me questions whether or not the film was necessary. Sure, the film succeeds with grace as a return to the sweet world of Milne in all regards to the point of that clearly being its overall goal. Yet with Walt Disney Animation Studios rarely working with hand-drawn projects at present, part of me wishes they had invested thirty million dollars on an original project.
It is difficult to stay on that thought for long with the result of the film. Winnie the Pooh may be slight but it works because of its slightness and not in spite of it. The filmmakers had a determined commitment to keep the modern world at bay and the film is all the better for it. So sit back, relax and revisit your friends from the Hundred Acre Wood.