August 28, 2014 / Filmwell
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July 27, 2011
The advertising campaign for Disney’s new Winnie the Pooh film is genius. I am convinced it was devised by a pack of hip interns—who else would think it was a good idea to use the melancholy soft-rock of Keane in a trailer for a children’s film? But as the chords of “Somewhere Only We Know” start to pound over the image of Pooh and Friends marching across a bridge, it hits you right in the gut—or at least it’s supposed to. “Admit it,” we are beckoned by the television spots (in Helvetica, no less!). “You miss them.” Oh, how you know us, hip Disney interns! Winnie the Pooh knows it will not be able to grab today’s ADHD children in a twenty second commercial, with its soft coloring and mild manners. No, instead it aims upward, at literate young parents desperate to instill a sense of taste in their children, children buffeted every day by the frenzied snark of sugar cereal ads. “Oh simple thing, where have you gone,” goes the song, played over glimpses of the Hundred Acre Wood. “I’m getting old and I need something to rely on.”
While this Winnie the Pooh seems to be something of a “reboot” of the series, it’s not as if the bear has been on hiatus. We may associate Pooh’s pop culture presence with the Disney films of the sixties and seventies, but he has also had a syndicated series through the nineties, several theatrical and DVD releases in the last decade, and untold volumes of merchandise hawked in Disney’s parks. Pooh, as an idea, never really went away. But as the franchise edged closer to irrelevance, it seemed to get more desperate– the characters became ever more bright and plastic, culminating in the sacrilege of a computer-animated series on Playhouse Disney made to ape the likes of “Dora the Explorer.” In this light, Winnie the Pooh functions as a reclaiming of the series, a decided stand against the hyper devolution of children’s entertainment.
And so this Pooh does indeed give us “something to rely on,” fashioned so eagerly after the early films as to be nearly redundant. However, it doesn’t take long for the movie to tickle you so thoroughly that it banishes such thoughts. I feel as if I’ve been exposed to enough Pooh in my life to predict the jokes, to offer just a few wan smiles to the “bear of little brain.” But I hardly got past the first few frames without a surprising, robust laugh. We enter upon Pooh snuggling into his bed, breathing out his one true desire: a gentle, urgent “Honey…” In one swift moment, I realized that I had forgotten how tender my feelings were toward him, how sympathetic I was to his goals. Winnie the Pooh operates on this plane. The film is mostly a kind of reminder, but it is a reminder of the best things about childhood, and it doesn’t feel cheap. It’s as if the filmmakers genuinely want to open up the books (or at least the old films) to us, and to say, Don’t you remember how lovely this was? How funny? How true?
The Pooh tales, both historically and here, are fables of sorts. A. A. Milne’s original stories are very British, very literate affairs, placing archetypal animals in a variety of pickles, often hinging upon verbal misunderstandings. Rarely moralistic, the stories depicted a cast of characters benevolently tripping over one another. The new Pooh follows this episodic structure. There’s little plot to speak of, the two main threads being Eeyore’s lost tail and dread over an imagined monster. Whatever problems arise in the world of Winnie the Pooh are the result of the characters’ own blunders and shortcomings. These creatures are motivated not by external threats, but by the unselfconscious worries and desires that come with early youth.
For this reason, the comedy of Winnie the Pooh is not situational, but character-driven– every laugh comes from Piglet’s strenuous efforts to interpret the word “knot,” or a particularly distraught sigh from Eeyore, or from Rabbit’s fevered plans scrawled in chalk above his head. Pooh is at the very center of the merriment, and rightly so. He is the best-natured parts of the id embodied, forever following his bliss straight to the honey tree. Pooh is unafraid to thank his stomach for its suggestions (“Good idea, tummy”) in utmost earnest. When he begins to hear every word as “honey” in a kiddieBeing John Malkovich moment, when he blithely toddles toward a trap he has just laid, powerless to the lure of his favorite treat, we must laugh in recognition. Perhaps Pooh is merely the Aesopic incarnation of appetite, the same way that Owl symbolizes pretension or Piglet stands for fear. But in his distraction, his humility, his simpleness, he is a powerful figure of nostalgia. He reminds us of the sweet sincerity we like to remember about being very small– and also the laughable hangups we’ve managed to carry with us into our adulthood.
This is not to say that Winnie the Pooh is some piercing human study. The writers seem to treat this new film as a re-introduction to the characters, parading them out one by one with an accompanying song. They’re certainly funny when thrown together, but Winnie the Pooh contents itself in this natural humor, rather than going any further with theme or development. This is where I find myself torn. The move away from the 90-minute plot structure is one I might, on its face, applaud. Milne’s stories were slight episodes built around wordplay, and to that end Winnie the Pooh is an appropriate tribute. The way Pooh walks across a paragraph, the way the characters play with letters fallen from the page, the labored debates about the difference between “issue” and “achoo!”– these riffs on Milne’s style are a treat. It’s just that they don’t add up to anything terribly cinematic.
That’s my biggest problem with Winnie the Pooh as a venture– though I really hesitate to state it that way, because I want to be fully behind something so charming and truly childlike. I really do. As a film for young children, I cannot fault Winnie the Pooh, especially in light of its competition. Our children deserve entertainment that meets them on their level, rather than movies that frantically wink at parents as they shoot for the biggest, dumbest laugh they can wrench from the kiddos. With its painterly backdrops and tender demeanor, Winnie the Pooh is a welcome throwback, the proverbial breath of fresh air. Critically, it’s done quite well for itself, prompting pieces like Andrew O’Hehir’s “Can ‘Winnie the Pooh’ Save Disney from Pixar?” at Salon. But in the universal praise for its old-fashioned charm, one has to consider whether “old-fashioned” is really the highest compliment we can pay a children’s film.
On the subject of whether the new Pooh will give Disney Animation a leg up over Pixar, I must side with the skeptics. Pixar’s abiding strength as a studio is in putting out stories whose merits are more than “old-fashioned”—they are rich and developed and human. It’s not as if I am asking for Winnie the Pooh to tell an epic tale. The last few Pooh releases have been derivative in their use of traditional plot structure about “big adventures.” I’m happy to concede that these are stories better suited to modest means.
It’s just that infernal Keane song. You tricked me, hip interns. You made me want Winnie the Pooh to be a melancholy meditation on lost childhood, to touch me with the furry golden paw of its pathos. While the film captures Milne’s character portraits and his jaunty literary awareness, it gives us very little in the Christopher Robin department. Some of the best parts of the stories were the glimpses we got of a child and his bear, resting aside a river, talking about nothing and everything. Christopher Robin is our point of entry, our touchstone of reality. Without much of him, Winnie the Pooh is still a darling confection—but it could have been a wonder.