It’s hard not to think fondly of Winnie the Pooh. The honey-loving bear has touched generations of children, all over the world, from the 1920s England of A. A. Milne’s original books to Soviet Russia. Yet no one has taken advantage of Winnie and his friends more thoroughly than Disney. Since the original 1966 featurette, the company has produced four short films, eight direct-to-video movies, four television series, five TV specials, seven video games and five theatrically released feature films, including this week’s “Winnie the Pooh.” It’s been quite the moneymaker for Walt’s heirs, but the originality and creativity that made Winnie a classic are most obvious at the source: the three theatrical featurettes that set everything in motion.
My favorite is 1968’s “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” which won Walt Disney his last (and posthumous) Oscar. The story takes place within Milne’s book itself, as the narrator flips the pages and reads to the audience. He also reads to Pooh, as if the words are a set of instructions for the bear to follow, however begrudgingly. The physicality of the text is also quite unique and inspired, with characters climbing onto their own dialog and jumping from page to page. It’s this willingness to think out of the box and invent strange new ideas for children’s cinema that have given these shorts such longevity.
The plot and the characters are also dealt with in a very whimsical and imaginative way. This is the short in which Tigger is introduced to Pooh, in the midst of a blustery night. Pooh’s mild-mannered stoicism allows them to become friends right away, moving us from plot point to plot point at lightening speed. So many things happen in the space of this short film that one wonders how they fit it all in, and much of the story elements are only tangentially related. The narrator helps to push things forward, of course, but there are also the contributions of the characters themselves. Eeyore, Tigger, Owl and the rest are all endearing but simply articulated individuals, whose easily defined moods allow the story to push on without much ado. They even define themselves in song, brief numbers that flit in and out of the short and rarely take up much time at all. 25 minutes go by faster than Tigger can bounce.
Finally, one can’t talk about “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” without mentioning the Heffalumps and Woozles dream sequence. After Pooh passes out in the midst of the blustery and rainy night, he’s treated to a scary and trippy musical number complete with shape-shifting woozles and dancing heffalumps. It runs over three minutes, the longest single song in the short, and its memorably bonkers images are evocative of the Pink Elephants sequence in “Dumbo.” Heffalump hot air balloons and talking honey pots illustrate the ridiculous lyrics of the song (“they’re quick and slick, they’re insincere”), creating a wonderfully psychedelic effect. This was the late ‘60s after all, and not even Disney was entirely immune to the influence of drug culture. The result is a charmingly absurd sequence in the middle of a creative and whimsical short film that has stood the test of time.
Video of the short on its own isn’t embeddable, but here’s “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” taken from the larger compilation film “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.”
Part One (starts at about 6:44):
Part Four (ends at about 1:30):