Winnie the Pooh: A Sublimely Silly Old Bear

Disney aims for a new classic and succeeds

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DISNEY STUDIOS

Owl (L) played by Craig Ferguson talks with Tigger (R) played by Jim Cummings in the newest installment of Winnie the Pooh movies

Disney’s sweet new Winnie the Pooh is about as unexciting as a movie can get. That is not an insult: this Pooh, which takes its gossamer plotlines directly from A.A. Milne, will be a boon to parents of very small children everywhere. Unruly toddlers may be lulled into euphoria and go face first into the carpet. It’s a good thing the film is only 69 minutes long or I might have succumbed to its gentle nostalgia and conked out, to dream happily of my old bear.

What happens? Pooh (brought to quavering perfection by veteran Pooh/Tigger Jim Cummings) is hungry. Eeyore (Bud Luckey) loses his tail. And thanks to Owl (Craig Ferguson) being his usual windbag self, the creatures of the Hundred Acre Wood come to believe that adorable Christopher Robin must be saved from a non-existent beast called the Backson. All this amounts to close to nothing, but then, Milne intended life to be quiet in the Hundred Acre Wood.

(See a photographic history of Winnie-the-Pooh.)

This is a proper Pooh, or as proper a Pooh as one could reasonably expect, 85 years into the bear’s quite varied existence. For those of middle age, the Pooh gold standard might be Disney’s 1966 original, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, with Sterling Holloway voicing Pooh (Cumming sounds uncannily like him). A younger set grew up with Disney’s crass Poohs, the brightly colored bears who in the 1990s got the cheesy Bob Hope treatment in specials keyed to every holiday. Elementary school kids probably have the misfortune of knowing the oafish 21st century bear from My Friends Tigger & Pooh.

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It’s safe to assume that most of these later adventures would have made Pooh’s famously ambivalent creator blanch. (Milne stumbled onto the Pooh stories while working on more serious endeavors and could never escape its grip, although he wanted to.) Back when I was a new parent, they left me wondering what had happened to old Pooh bear. The makers of the new film share the same longing for the Pooh of the past: Winnie the Pooh opens just as The Honey Tree did, with a live-action pan of Christopher Robin’s bedroom — neatly establishing how accessible a world like the Hundred Acre forest is to anyone with an imagination. Co-directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall make their transitions between “chapters” look just the way Milne’s books did, with Ernest H. Shephard’s illustrations wedged between short paragraphs and dialogue. (Shephard’s is my true Pooh, jointed and naked.) Then the illustrations come to life and the action flows with crisp and fluid animation. It’s classically Disney, as if Walt himself (actually, John Cleese) were reading us a story.

Timeless though it is, Winnie the Pooh‘s does nod to contemporary tastes with its soundtrack, which includes actress/singer Zooey Deschanel crooning the theme song. Her part won’t make much of an impact on children, but parents can pretend for a moment that they’re sitting in a cool bar listening to Deschanel’s band She & Him do a semi-ironic — but very beautiful — rendition of a childhood favorite. It’s a small twist of hipster in a satisfying old-school production.

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