Well, here’s an unfortunate case of hitting the marketplace at the wrong time. No doubt the folks at Disney thought they’d counter-program by putting out their newest animated movie version of Winnie the Pooh on the same weekend as the last Harry Potter film. The strategy didn’t work. Barely anyone turned up for the opening weekend. Perhaps the movie would have had an uphill battle regardless, given that Disney had already released three Pooh films in the last 11 years, none of which had achieved any distinction. The pity is, this current movie actually is pretty good, a piece of work that manages to retain the gentle spirit of A.A. Milne’s woodland adventures while instilling a creative edge that was missing from The Tigger Movie (2000), Piglet’s Big Movie (2003), and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie (2005).
The film’s plot is based on three of Milne’s stories: “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One,” “In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump,” and “In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings.” The adorable, honey-loving bear (voiced by Jim Cummings) is drawn into an adventure when Owl (voiced by Craig Ferguson) misinterprets a note from Christopher Robin (voiced by Jack Boulter) and concludes that the boy has been kidnapped by a fearsome creature called “the Backson.”
Eight different writers are credited on this movie, which probably explains why the story’s a bit scattershot. Then again, focus and narrative momentum have never been what the Pooh stories were all about. It’s perhaps inevitable that there are parts of this movie that don’t work, like the conversational exchange when Pooh mistakes Owl’s use of the word “issue” for sneezing. More felicitous are the changes rung by director/co-writers Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall. They inject devices such as the characters interacting with the voiceover narrator (John Cleese) and playing out their scenes in book illustrations on a page, surrounded by the text of Milne’s stories. Sometimes the letters from the text drop into the characters’ world. The musical number about the Backson renders all the characters in chalk drawings. These touches keep the story visually sharp without turning the movie unduly frenetic. The songs are largely by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (the latter also doubles as the voice of Kanga), and while they’re not the most memorable tunes, many of them are performed by Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, whose shimmering retro arrangements fit the overall tone. If you’re seeking relief from the overly caffeinated affairs that often pass for kids’ movies, this version of Winnie the Pooh offers relief without boredom.
The movie is accompanied by a Scottish-themed short film called The Ballad of Nessie, narrated by Billy Connolly. Its tale of a monster who’s constantly told not to cry is a slight but charming antidote to the whole British stiff-upper-lip ethos.
Winnie the Pooh
Voices by Jim Cummings and Craig Ferguson. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall. Written by Stephen J. Anderson, Clio Chiang, Don Dougherty, Don Hall, Brian Kesinger, Nicole Mitchell, Jeremy Spears, and Kendelle Hoyer, based on A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard’s books. Rated G.