Disney // 1977 // 74 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // July 20th, 2007
"I re-cog-go-nize you! You're the one that's stuffed with fluff! Yeah, and it's comfy too!" -- Tigger (Paul Winchell) to Pooh (Sterling Halloway)
Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays, you'll find the enchanted neighborhood -- of Disney's most powerful franchise.
And when Disney gets rumbly in their tumbly, they cook up a rerelease of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, five years after its last visit on DVD.
This would be the place where normally I would introduce the characters and story points of the film. But everybody knows Winnie the Pooh. He is a cultural icon -- so much so that it is easy to forget the character's upward climb to media prominence. It is easy to forget that at one time, Winnie the Pooh was one of the more controversial members of the Disney pantheon.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh came at the lowest point in Disney's creative drain of the 1970s. The studios previous two features (The Aristocats and Robin Hood) felt recycled and formulaic, and the studio would only start inching its way back using new artists (to replace the "old men" of Walt's day) with The Rescuers (released the same year). In fact, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the epitome of the "let's do it like Walt did" mentality that the studio took way too literally in those years: the film is expressly a repackaging of featurettes previously produced and released by Walt's handpicked team. Such a repackaging -- not to mention the liberties Disney took with the original stories in creating the animated version to begin with -- might have been an act of desperation in 1977. But ultimately, it would pay off. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has become one of the most beloved films in the Disney canon.
My daughter sleeps every night with a stuffed Winnie the Pooh, Ernest Shepard version. If she forgets to bring him when she sleeps over at her grandparents' house, she is inconsolable -- and somebody must drive back to get him. She has a Pooh lamp, a framed Peter Ellenshaw Pooh painting, and Pooh books galore. She has a lot of Disney princess stuff too, but Pooh Bear is always first in her heart. Her brother is starting to like Tigger.
My kids are not the exception. They are typical of American children, for whom Winnie the Pooh is essential, as much a part of their lives as oxygen. What was once so personal -- A.A. Milne's attempt to amuse his son Christopher with stories of the boy's own playtime friends -- is an empire that generates more income than many industrialized nations.
But back in the 1960s, it was not clear that Walt Disney knew this was coming. When he licensed the rights to Milne's characters back in 1961, he did not commit to a complete feature, thinking that the characters would not appeal to American tastes. So Walt tried a half-hour featurette and stuck it in front of one of the studio's throwaway live-action pictures (The Ugly Dachshund, in case you were keeping score). The first story, "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree," feels tentative, uncertain. It combines two stories from Milne: first, Pooh tries to get honey from a beehive with a balloon, then he eats too much and gets stuck in Rabbit's doorway. They are charming tales and quite representative of the laid-back tone of the original books. But they also do not give much attention to the rest of the Pooh ensemble, except the human boy Christopher Robin (who gives the audience some access into the Hundred Acre Wood) and the fussy Rabbit. Indeed, Piglet, whose brittleness is most difficult to translate on screen, is missing entirely from the first featurette, replaced with a more "American" sort of character, the busy Gopher. Of course, he has to remind us repeatedly that he's "not in the book!" Ah, postmodern humor.
Anyway, Walt was evidently pleased with the results of the first featurette, so he put a second one into production. "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day" was not released until 1968, after Walt's death, but it is much more confident and assured in its tone. Again, two stories are combined here: the arrival of Tigger and the chaotic rainstorm that nearly tears apart the Hundred Acre Wood. Paul Winchell's Tigger is perfect for American audiences. He is brash, overconfident, and a perfect foil for the restraint of, well, pretty much everybody else in the Hundred Acre Wood. He is as much a force of nature as the storm, making the two plots mesh more effectively than in the first featurette, where the common element seemed to be Pooh's appetite. (On the other hand, the nightmare sequence borrows so heavily from Dumbo's "Pink Elephants on Parade" number that I suspect the animation team, shaken over Walt's recent death, felt safer recycling at least something from the studio's glory days.)
In most feature films, the tremendous storm would be a natural climax for the story. But the Pooh episodes were released originally as featurettes. So, "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too," from 1974, is somewhat of an anticlimax. The episode is more focused, playing off the breakthrough popularity of Tigger. First, Rabbit has a plan to strand Tigger in the woods and thus frighten him into losing his bounce; then, Tigger and Roo bounce too high and get stuck in a tree. Overall, the episode is quieter in its tone than the last installment. To give a sense of what it feels like, note that both parts of the story involve Pooh and friends walking in circles and getting lost. In fact, the crisis has to be resolved by the narrator (a reassuring Sebastian Cabot).
When it came time to assemble the three featurettes into a full theatrical film in 1977 (allegedly Walt's plan from the beginning, in the spirit of his "package features" of the 1940s), this wandering tone became a problem. The original Milne stories are charming because they meander. They are relaxing, like Eeyore drifting down a lazy river, turning right or left as it suits him. Pooh is not a pro-active character: as Benjamin Hoff famously pointed out in The Tao of Pooh, he is the embodiment of "going with the flow," the uncarved block who makes it through every adversity intact simply by existing in the moment. (This, as you will see later, is why I find the new Pooh show on Playhouse Disney such a violation of the character's personality.)
But a Disney feature -- indeed, the Hollywood feature film in general -- is entirely teleological. In other words, it needs direction and purpose. It is goal-oriented, with a problem to solve (plot closure and/or character development) and forward momentum. Something or someone must change by the end of the story, and we must build narratively toward that change and produce a climax. As I pointed out earlier, the "natural" climax of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the blustery day sequence, capped by the hero party. But continuity (Tigger's introduction during the night in that episode) prevents Disney from assembling the pieces in what an audience might see as their appropriate order. So the film wanders in the third act, literally arriving where it needs to be only because the narrator steps in to rescue Tigger and push us ahead to a closing sequence that implies Christopher Robin is about to grow up and leave the world of his imagination, where the Hundred Acre Wood will transmute from a state of immediacy (where we can go to play as children now) to nostalgia (where we remember what it was like to be children). This makes the ending somewhat bittersweet.
An audience used to the conventional forward momentum of a Hollywood film might find The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh awkwardly structured and anticlimactic because of all this. On the other hand, if you take this in the spirit of the original Milne stories, the meandering nature of the film is its most faithful quality. In addition, what seemed at the time like an odd, intrusive device for linking up the stories -- Sebastian Cabot's page-flipping narrator -- now looks ingenious and hip. The result is a film that has come into its own over the last thirty years -- and blows away all the other incarnations of Pooh that Disney has tried to create in the meantime. In other words, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has shrugged off its desperate genesis and earned the right to be called a classic.
Five years ago, Disney released a "Masterpiece Edition" of the film to coincide with its 25th anniversary. Now, it is back with "The Friendship Edition." Just as with Disney's recent repackaging of Dumbo in a "special" edition that added nothing significant to the previous release, this "Friendship Edition" is pretty much the same as the 2002 release. Even the menus are almost identical. Disney has used the same print, which was in pretty good shape for the 25th anniversary DVD. It could really use a touch more clean up though, and even the bitrate between the two discs (7.6 Mb/sec on the new versus 6.8 on the old, according to my calculations) is so close as to be indistinguishable. In spite of this, I did notice that the new transfer was just a little bit brighter, although I had to study it hard to really notice a difference.
The extras on this disc are almost the same as on the previous edition. The 1983 short, "A Day for Eeyore" includes my personal favorite moment from the book (the game of Poohsticks). But this short was also produced during that period between Walt's death and Michael Eisner's revitalization of the company, when the animation department was in the doldrums. The animation and color palette lack gentleness and warmth, Sterling Halloway is much missed as Pooh (replaced by Hal Smith), and director Rick Reinert keeps the pacing slack compared to the more experienced John Lounsbery and Woolie Reitherman. He gets away with it only because Pooh's world is by nature more relaxed.
The rest is familiar to owners of the 25th anniversary version: a solid historical overview of Pooh's history from the days of A.A. Milne to the featurettes, including interviews with the Sherman Brothers (whose tunes for the series are among their most memorable) and the then-surviving animators. There is a read-along story, a game, an art gallery, a sing-along, and a music video. I suspect Disney has a checklist of items that must go on every "special edition" DVD. There are only a couple of unusual aspects to these features The first is that the music video is by Carly Simon rather than some Radio Disney tween pop act, but I suspect that is a concession to the baby boomers for whom the "classic" Pooh holds more memories. The second is the inclusion of a trivia subtitle track. This is a wonderful idea (especially if a studio is trying to stick to a budget), but the trivia is very infrequent.
The only new material (replacing a trailer for Pooh's first theatrical feature) shows how the silly old bear has evolved as a franchise in the last five years. During the film's last appearance on DVD, Pooh was represented on television three shows: Welcome to Pooh Corner (full sized costumed characters in front of a blue-screened Hundred Acre Wood), The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (a pleasant animated series that still has a few DVDs in circulation), and The Book of Pooh (a twitchy puppet version designed to teach reading skills). All of those shows are now gone, several animated features have hit theaters, and Pooh got a theme park ride. Oh, and Disney fought (and continues to fight) a complicated lawsuit over who exactly owns the rights to the character.
Still, the Pooh franchise is one of Disney's most profitable, so they continue to look for ways to push new material. The latest incarnation is My Friends Tigger and Pooh, a computer-generated pre-school show for the Disney Channel. While the similar Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is a successful effort to revitalize Disney's classic characters, mostly because the show leaves their original personalities intact, I don't much care for the liberties My Friends Tigger and Pooh takes with the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood. The premise: tomboy Darby runs around solving puzzles with her "super sleuth" pals. While Tigger has always been an energetic character, Pooh just does not look right dressing up in a superhero costume and zipping around on a motor scooter. Computer animation also makes the characters look too rubbery. For the Mickey Mouse show, this seems to work, since the original character designs have a solidity to them, but for Pooh, a certain softness and shading is part of Milne's laid-back world. Thus, this newest version of Winnie the Pooh just doesn't seem, well, huggable.
I am disappointed that Disney, knowing the loyalty fans have toward Pooh, could not be bothered to invest in a serious upgrade of this disc, rather than just a minor repackaging designed to plug a new television series. If you already have the 2002 release, there is no particular reason to pick up "The Friendship Edition." If you do not already own the 2002 edition, then The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: The Friendship Edition should be an essential part of your Disney collection. Disney has piles and piles of Pooh movies and shows created over the last thirty years, but this is still the best of the lot. Come and enjoy the charm and fun of your favorite "silly old bear," and forget for a couple of hours about the marketing juggernaut. And how about a relaxing game of Poohsticks while we're at it?
The court orders Disney to get unstuck from their hole and do some stoutness exercises. They are just getting too lazy. The movie, however, is released immediately -- with a free pot of honey.
Review content copyright © 2007 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* "Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore" (1983 Short)
* Behind the Scenes Featurette
* Trivia Subtitle Track
* Episode of My Friends Tigger and Pooh
* "Pooh's Shadow" Interactive Story
* Hundred Acre Wood Game
* Sing-Along Song
* Music Video
* Art Gallery