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“Winnie the Pooh” Charms with Slight Twists on a Classic

"Winnie the Pooh" Charms with Slight Twists on a Classic

I love Winnie the Pooh. Everyone loves Winnie the Pooh. He’s a willy, nilly, silly old bear. Yet sometimes we forget that not everyone has a relationship with our childhood favorites and newer generations in particular. Thankfully, Disney always remembers, as there is always money to be made. From the beloved A. A. Milne novels to this weekend’s newest theatrical feature, there has been an incarnation of this heroic bear for almost every new batch of kids. There were the original shorts in the late 1960s, TV shows in the 1980s, direct-to-DVD films of the 2000s and a whole wide range of other incarnations over the years.

And now we have a new film that seeks to bring this character and his friends to life for yet another batch of youngsters. It works quite well, too. The Disney team has done a great job of recreating the whimsical tone of the original theatrical featurettes that have stayed so fresh, keeping the magic alive. Yet at the same time, in spite of how charming “Winnie the Pooh” may be, I wonder where the line lies between artfully executed children’s entertainment and the almost factory-like manufacture of Pooh films. With stories taken right from Milne and stylistic touches that mimic Disney’s prior outings in the Hundred Acre Wood, this new adventure stands right on that precipice.

The narrative itself is a blend of a few tales from the original books that have not been used already by the studio. Yet it’s still hard to tell the difference between a plot point yanked from earlier Disney films and one that simply feels as such because the writers have so effectively captured the spirit of the characters. Eeyore loses his tail, which happens often in other incarnations of the stories but never takes the turn it does here. Owl confuses a note from Christopher Robin, reading “back soon” as a monstrous “backsun” creature that has kidnapped the boy. It hasn’t been used by Disney before yet it feels overwhelmingly like it has, perhaps due to its similarity to the Heffalumps and Woozles of “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.” Walking out of the theater I felt charmed, but convinced that not a single ounce of the narrative was new.

At the same time, the strange sequence that accompanies the “backsun” into the fears of Pooh and his friends is exactly the right kind of connection to early work. It’s almost a hallucination, using the same mood as the bear’s Heffalump fever dream in 1968’s “Blustery Day,” with objects taking on minds of their own and the makeshift villain changing size and shape. The animators have taken things one step further this time around, maintaining the same mood as the original featurettes but adding a bit of animated pizzazz. The effect is used later on as well, when Pooh finds himself so desperate for honey that he sees it everywhere. The golden and shimmering liquid dominates the screen as everything turns molten and delicious, lending a wonderful sheen to the visual palette of the film and pushing the experience just a little beyond what we’ve seen before.

Much of this new adventure through the Hundred Acre Wood’s merits come from making that extra little push. It copies the old style of having characters sing little songs, maybe about a minute long, that flit in and out of the narrative when needed. Yet little extensions and exaggerations take things one small step further. Pooh’s first musical number involves a duet with his grumbling stomach, which groans in time to the music. Unfortunately, this creativity also backfires now and then, as the soundtrack is entirely off the mark. It runs far past the excesses of cutesy into a sort of folksy elevator music, complete with almost eerily restrained vocals and off-putting tones.

Thankfully “Winnie the Pooh” recovers, and the music is really the only aspect that doesn’t at least in part improve the film. The characters feel just as they’ve always been, from melancholic Eeyore to bouncy Tigger and long-winded Owl. Even the narrator is used quite effectively, re-affirming the style of Pooh interacting with the book itself, being woken up by the storyteller and jumping across lines of dialog. There’s even a moment in which the letters themselves are used as a ladder, taking their creative use just a bit further, and adding a new moment to a classic feature of these stories.

In many ways, this movie does not feel at all like watching something new. At other moments it jumps to show its individuality, with stylish animation that may not have been possible in the late-1960s or little exaggerations and extensions of the familiar mood of the Hundred Acre Wood. It’s a good balance for those of us familiar with the old, and it’s fantastic for kids new to Christopher Robin and his pals. It’ll familiarize them with the characters and make them love the stories, with the magic that comes with going to see a new movie in the theater. Yet it’s also an opportunity to go home and take some time to watch the classic shorts and read the original stories, and you’ll appreciate them more for it.

“Winnie the Pooh” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended if you like: the original Winnie the Pooh theatrical featurettes; “Muppets from Space”; “The Princess and the Frog”

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