Winnie the Pooh will never be cool. And ironically, that actually makes him one of the coolest heroes to grace our movie screens this summer. He’s not pursuing fleeting relevance by trying to come across as hip. He doesn’t squeeze himself into the demands of a studio that wants all things for all audiences. And while the unstoppable Disney marketing machine has certainly slapped his face on all manner of gouge-ables, none of that crass commercialism touches this latest cinematic foray. The House of Mouse has learned its lesson from mediocre cash-ins like Pooh’s Heffalump Movie and returned A.A. Milne’s beloved stuffed bear to his roots. They couldn’t have made a wiser choice.
In fact, this new Winnie the Pooh actually outshines all the earlier Disney renditions of the character, including the shorts from the 1960s and the indifferent 1977 “feature” that simply strung several of them together. Those films appeared during Disney’s slow descent, with Walt dead and the animation department succumbing to corporate indifference. The 2011 version has a stalwart backer in executive producer John Lasseter, who respects both the history of the character and his origins in Milne’s prose. Directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall deliver a gorgeous version of Hundred Acre Wood, rendered in beautiful 2D with an emphasis on hand-drawn style (even when the computer subtly lends a hand) that easily outshines the indifferent animation of previous Pooh films.
The story combines several gentle threads into a neat final package, as Pooh’s (voiced by Jim Cummings) eternal quest for honey is interrupted by Eeyore’s (voiced by Bud Lackey) lost tail and a monster known as the Backson apparently kidnaps Christopher Robin. The usual cast of characters helps him out, from the hyperactive Tigger (also Cummings) to know-nothing know-it-all Owl (voiced by Craig Ferguson). Unlike earlier films, the interwoven plots maintain some organic cohesion – aided by their origins in the Milne stories – while reminding us how charming the characters are. Anderson and Hall use their share of tried-and-true shticks – such as Pooh and his friends interacting with the words on the nearby printed page – but still find interesting things to do with them, as well as adding some new techniques to give the film a sense of identity.
The end results create a Pooh Bear who is, perhaps, definitive (at least as far as his Disney manifestation goes). The vocal work takes some getting used to, since it comes from new performers, but they approach their duties with gusto and admirably deliver the core of the lovable cast of characters. Zooey Deschanel contributes songs both old and new with more mixed success (none of them are bad, just a little routine), but nothing here disrupts the fine mixture of nostalgia and charm upon which such an endeavor absolutely depends.
It also doesn’t overstay its welcome, which some might regard as problematic. Winne the Pooh runs a scant 73 minutes, plus the credits and a fun little short (done in classic 1950s Disney style) about the creation of Loch Ness. With material this slight and fluffy, undue padding would be a disastrous mistake; as it stands, the film feels just the right length. The film does its job and gets out before it has a chance to become tiresome. Older children will likely find it dull (they have Harry Potter to entertain them), but the very young – as well as their knowing parents – should be enthralled by the kind and colorful adventures onscreen.
And that’s really kind of the point. While Disney tries to break into the teen market with the Marvel superheroes, or lend old favorites like Mickey an appalling sheen of “hipness,” Pooh Bear was always meant for a younger crowd. Winnie the Pooh speak to them in a loving voice, with enough imagination to inspire them and nothing too scary to keep them up nights. That it does so with almost no noticeable flaws is quietly miraculous. Amid the sturm und drang of a summer in full bellow, its softness, gentility and serenity feel instantly relaxing. Every now and then, we need the fuzzy hand of a good friend who knows when to stop and smell the honey. What else are Pooh Bears for?