Prior to my screening of Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall’s Winnie the Pooh, an adaptation of the beloved A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard books, a military recruitment ad (complete with tattooed musclemen who, cradling monstrous rifles, ran through enemy-fire, barking orders) terrified the young audience made up of rampageous toddlers that parents had brought along for, what I assume was, their first time at the cinema. Although it was meant to emphasis the importance of patriotism and a soldier’s struggle for his or her country, here it exemplified society’s obsession with violence. Cinema, which is easily influenced by what an audience wants, has been oversaturated by not only blood and gore, but also sex and drugs. But Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest, which was penned by Anderson and Hall alongside Clio Dougherty, Brian Kesinger, Nicole Mitchell, and Jeremy Spears, has only innocence in mind (a stark contrast to David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 with which it shared opening weekend with).
Winnie the Pooh is a welcome return to traditional 2D animation. It’s narrated by John Cleese, who, in a soft-spoken tone, tells the story of the film’s titular star, a lazy bear (voiced by Jim Cummings) that desperately searches for a jar of sweet, savory honey. In-between his never-ending quest, Winnie reunites with the pretentious Owl (Craig Ferguson), who is penning his memoir; Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez) and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall), the quintessential ma’-and-son pairing; Rabbit (Tom Kenny), who would much rather tend to his carrot farm; the egocentric, Tigger (Cummings again); and Piglet (Travis Oates), the smallest and most fearful member of the pack. Their goal is to help the always depressed Eeyore (Bud Luckey) find a replacement tail. But this simple narrative stumbles when the writers add another story to the mix. Yes, in little more than an hour, they also have the troupe track down their young friend, Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), who after misinterpreting one of his notes, the team believes was captured by a creature called the “Backson.” And this brings me to my first point.
What were the writers thinking when they decided to stuff three stories into a 69-minute film? As one would expect, these disjointed subplots distract from a charming aesthetic and likeable characters. Granted, given the timelessness and instant recognizability of the gang, Anderson and Hall spare no time with introductions — doing so would have been superfluous — however, I would’ve liked more of a connective tissue between the adventures, or even better, a unified plot that drove the entire story (the search for Eeyore’s tail would be especially interesting to see unfold in more detail).
It’s almost embarrassing that a short, entitled The Ballad of Nessie, which is directed by Stevie Wermers and precedes the main attraction, is more focused than the feature presentation. Written by Wermers, Regina Conroy, and Kevin Deters, this animation, rhythmically narrated by Billy Connolly, tells the story of the Loch Ness monster, who is forced to relocate (together with McQuack the rubber duck, her best — and only — friend) when a land developer named MacFroogle decides to construct a mini-golf empire a top of her home. Told with the nuance of most future-length films, the lesson behind this short is that behind every tear is a rainbow.
But if fairytales depicting the importance of crying aren’t your idea of fun, Winnie the Pooh offers a lot thematically. For the diehard hedonists and epicureans, there’s Pooh (whose philosophies of sleep, eat, and play, became irresistible to me) and his thirst for honey; those wanting a bit of heart can look no further than the inhabitants of Thousand Acre Wood themselves, who together, represent the value of friendship (though, I still think it’s unfair to name the series, Winnie the Pooh, singling out one character, when in actuality, the film is at its best when they play off each-other’s idiosyncrasies).
And much like the characters themselves, the visuals shine not because of what they do, but what they don’t. Subtle details, such as the white lines in-between Rabbit’s eyebrows and the fine outline around Pooh-bear, show the lengths the animators took to preserve hand-drawn cartooning. In an age ruled by Pixar, whose computer-generated images embody very slick and buoyant colors, such efforts — which have a subdued energy that cannot be replicated — are all the more appreciated. Though, another brilliant twist is the film’s storybook appearance and how the characters interact with the typography onscreen (e.g., they use fallen letters as a ladder).
If profit was the motive behind the film’s inception, the producers surely don’t show it. There are no big-name actors or actresses here. Instead there’s a cast of faceless (but intricately selected) professional voice-actors. And their credentials speak for themselves. Even the standout performer, Cummings, who manages two characters without flaw, is an unknown entity to most (this is despite working in over 300 titles). In fact, perhaps the most marketable aspect of Winnie the Pooh is a musical number by Zooey Deschanel, which, as it stands, is also the film’s most forgettable.