REVIEW: Winnie the Pooh Charms with Warmth, Whimsy For All Ages
Sweet as anything and just as slender, the new Winnie the Pooh movie features no adjustments, adjuncts, or fancy add-ons in its title. It's not called Winnie, Pooh, Winnie the Two, or The New Winnie the Pooh Movie. It's Winnie the Pooh to you, and in the desperate age of "re" -- rejigger, reconstitute, reboot, remember to send your accountant a meat-of-the-month club membership -- that means a lot.
Before you imagine that staying true to the Pooh (how I've always hated that modifier) was a mission of entertainment piety, consider the inevitability of Disney's marketers cutting down all of the angles, including the one about appealing to the retro-mad generations that grew up on A.A. Milne storybooks, slept clutching Winnie bears to their sweaty cheeks, and have saliva-based responses to anything that evokes their heavily branded childhoods. The trailer for this ineffably cute feature-let features Keane's yearning, insinuative "Somewhere Only We Know," and one ad is filled with Gen X voices attesting to the authenticity, the purity, the climb-back-into-Walt's-womb nostalgia coma induced by this entirely faithful reanimation of the characters they remember. Also Zooey Deschanel is involved. But it was a sweet 30 or so seconds of innocent anticipation, wasn't it?
Happily, the film itself -- at the Charlie Brown TV-special fighting weight of 54 minutes -- is the very antidote to that kind of cynicism, suspicious ad campaign be damned. In fact what's most notable about Winnie the Pooh (which was directed by Disney stalwarts Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall), along with its reversion to classic animation style and utter fidelity to Milne's vivid conception of his bedspread full of characters, is how completely and affectionately it caters to children. And I mean little children. Full of romper room sing-a-longs (Deschanel sings and helped write some of the music; Pooh duets with his growling belly) rather than iconic musical numbers, and about as sparsely plotted as a shaggy-bear story can be, the film's appeal is enchantingly basic. Book-ended, literally, by the opening and closing of an A.A. Milne tome, the written words on the inside pages are very much a part of story. Pooh (given a doleful quaver by Jim Cummings) and company interact with the narrator (John Cleese), the white space surrounding the illustrations housing them, and the lines and letters themselves. The effect recalls the beguiling lightness of the good old Disney, where clever visual and thematic feats are deftly interwoven and yet tossed off with an insouciance that favors playfulness above all.
Certainly the concerns of the bear of very little brain have not expanded beyond his honey-seeking reach. Part of the story is dedicated to the bumbling quest to retrieve the tail of poor Eeyore (Bud Luckey), which has mysteriously disappeared and left only a pushpin in its place. I'm worried about Eeyore; I don't remember him being this depressed. Craig Ferguson is wonderful as the blowhard Owl with epistemological issues; Tigger (Cummings again) is the reliably buoyant id and Piglet (Travis Oates) a wee spot of earthbound ego; and Tom Kenny is fine as the slightly less well-defined (and yet strikingly animated) Rabbit. Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter) is still in short pants, a choice that has made some purists squawk, and least used is Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez) and her pouch-bound Roo. But then, what little boy knows what to make of his lady toys?
The second part of the story is about the misunderstanding of a note left by the school-bound Christopher Robin, and the determination of his pals to save him from the dread creature they believe stole him away. A feather-light emphasis on communicating properly and standing by your friends fills out what is essentially a lovingly crafted lark. I'd like to think the care that went into the details is less a function of my own nostalgia for these sweetly hapless characters than exposure to the barreling crudeness of so much of children's animation -- particularly on television -- today. Perhaps there's something to be said for the deliberation of hand-drawn animation, and the creative space opened up by the time and attention it demands. It's certainly the first film I've seen that credits a "caffeinator" at the end. The short that played before the screening I saw, titled The Legend of Nessie, has the same abundant charm, in a smaller, tighter package. Together they are as wholesome and wholly cheerful a package as you could ask for on a summer afternoon with the kids.