Monday, August 8, 2011

Pooh vs. Pukh, a character analysis

My interest in storytelling and defining screen characters led me to analyze two very different yet faithful adaptations of Alexander Alan Milne’s children’s classic “Winnie-the-Pooh”. It just so happens that Wolfgang Reitherman’s first Disney adaptation Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966) is based on the same two chapters as Fyodor Khitruk’s first two Vinni-Pukh (1969/1971) films, both of them about ten minutes long per chapter. However, Pooh and his friends come across as quite different characters in these two versions of the same simple story. 

The first two chapters of A. A. Milne’s book “Winnie-the-Pooh” from 1926 are built around Pooh’s incessant appetite for honey. In the first one he fails to get honey out of a treehole inhabited by bees, in the second one he climbs through another hole into a rabbit burrow and eats so much honey that he gets stuck when trying to climb out.

While Milne concentrates on Pooh’s relationship with Christopher Robin (CR) in the first chapter and introduces the good-mannered rabbit in the second, he only mentions the other characters in a sort of preview of later chapters. After all, Pooh is Christopher Robin’s favorite toy bear and CR is the narrator’s six year old son who wants his daddy to tell Pooh stories about himself, Pooh that is. In fact, Milne’s own son was called Christopher Robin and the book contains many a conversation between father and son in parentheses.

Thus, one might say the self-reflective narration has always been part of the appeal of the Pooh stories. So there’s no wonder that both the Russian and the American adaptations feature voice-over narration and characters looking into mirrors or even straight at the camera.

Literal but playful and appealing
The way Khitruk and Reitherman differ in how they incorporate the narrator and CR into the story is essential to the way they handle the characters and their on-screen relationships. They both seem to do Milne justice on different levels, though. True to Disney’s literal “illusion of life” paradigm, Reitherman frames the animated segments with a credit sequence over live-action footage of a deserted nursery full of stuffed animals and a book of Winnie-the-Pooh which belong to a boy called Christopher Robin “and they all live together in a wonderful world of make-believe”.

This ghostly human world feels as artificial and lifeless that it seems only natural to see the book open all by itself. As it turns out, there is no connection between the English narrator (Sebastian Cabot) and the American animated boy Christopher Robin whose voice belongs to director Reitherman’s son Bruce (later the voice of Mowgli). This Pooh story is obviously told to us and not to CR.

Since the original stories already lack any opportunities for emotional involvement (or Disney sentimentality) the film makers have cleverly expanded the concept of characters inhabiting a printed book, no matter how distancing this may turn out. The original self-reflective conversations between CR and his narrator-father have been translated into occasional interactions between Pooh and the narrator.

Yet the printed book and the carefully rendered illustrations support the notion that this is a children’s story told from an adult’s point of view, fondly looking down on the lovable characters like one is looking at a young child. After all, Pooh is only “stuffed with fluff” and “of very little brain”. The stories in this book might fuel a child’s imagination and role play, audience involvement is not as immediate though because of this additional layer.

Diving into that world

Khitruk’s narrator, on the other hand, is in no other relation to the characters than faithfully narrating their story. When these characters look at the camera, they may look directly at us or appear to think something that we don’t know about. By eliminating the meta-level that both Milne and Reitherman used to indicate the child-like make-believe world of embarking on adventures with forest animals and stuffed toys alike, Khitruk is able to eliminate CR and humans in general.

Thus, the director creates a world of immediacy itself, a universe where Vinni Pukh and his friends are very much alive, not as forest animals or stuffed toys but as “real” characters with no traces of human interference, there’s no distancing book involved.

A narrative that follows children’s logic is ideally suited for a visual style that has the warmth of children’s drawings. After all, this artistic illustration style was much more contemporary in 1969 than the timeless Disney-fied Shepard imitations (I happen to like so much). So Khitruk even manages to discard the “literary classic” or nostalgia dimension of Reitherman’s film without compromising Milne’s spirit.

Although breaking the concept of either style, both films give us a point-of-view up-shot at the "black rain cloud".

Probably the greatest advantage of such a conventionalized, two-dimensional style is the fact that the characters don’t need to be animated in an “illusion-of-life” fashion. The obviously skillful Russian animators have found a naïve style that allows very laconic and deadpan comic performances.
Rabbit is all excited, in Khitruk's style tilted glasses do the job.

The gopher that is "not in the book".
Although only Pooh, CR and Rabbit appear in the first two chapters, Reitherman sneaks in the whole gang of Pooh characters from the first book as extras – except for Piglet (instead there is a much criticized American gopher that is “not in the book”). Piglet however is mentioned in the preface of Milne’s book and comes off as a small but somehow jealous guy who would love to be as popular as Pooh.

By substituting Piglet for CR, Khitruk gives Pukh a screen partner who unlike CR is not considered mentally superior. Thus, characterized by his relationship with Piglet (Pyatachok), Pukh comes off as a distinct character quite different from what we are used to from the Disney version. Apart from the fact that he hardly ever smiles at anybody he also walks and talks in a swift pace. Especially in the second Pukh film, Piglet is breathlessly trying to keep up with him.
Piglet replaces Christopher Robin

Milne’s Pooh
But before comparing the different film characters, let’s have a look at how Milne characterizes Pooh in the book: According to the narrator, Pooh is CR’s favorite toy and likes to play a game, sit quietly in front of a fire or listen to a story, preferably about himself (as CR remarks). He also likes to make up songs and poems which he sings/hums when wandering about aimlessly. His thought process seems to be slow and steady and he talks to himself. All in all, he is pretty confident that his plans work. And above all, he has an insatiable appetite for honey.

In the second chapter we also learn that he is capable of self-reflection: He exercizes in front of a mirror and afterwards thinks about what it felt like being somebody else. Yet he is persistent enough not to believe Rabbit’s polite way of trying to get rid of him by posing as somebody else or even “nobody” (“But this is Me! – What sort of Me?”). In fact, Pooh doesn’t get the concept of saying things out of politeness at all. When he’s stuck he’s embarrassed and even crying at the prospects of not eating for a week, but it never occurs to him that this situation might have been uncomfortable for Rabbit as well. In his case, social ignorance leads to resilience and one couldn’t even be mad at him for that. E.H. Shepard’s illustrations hardly show any strong facial expressions.

Reitherman’s Pooh
The stereotyped thinking gesture.
Sebastian Cabot introduces Pooh as a lovable bear with very little brain and an insatiable appetite for honey. We see Pooh exercising and talking to himself in front of a mirror (self-reflection). He’s obviously a Teddy Bear. His voice (Sterling Holloway) is rather high but slow and charming, he always smiles and there is a stereotyped gesture to show his thought process. He speaks not only to himself but also to the narrator and sings whenever he is on his own, sometimes supported by a choir that emphasizes the mood of warm American nostalgia right from the title song.

Talking to himself and stuffed with fluff.
Another framing device.
This happy-go-lucky Pooh might be regretful but never angry or hurt, he even laughs when he bangs his head to a branch. The first person he thinks of is not CR but “Winnie the Pooh”. But like in the book, he relies on CR to get him out of tight places. Yet, the narrator tells us, Pooh is not “the sort to give up easily”. When he put his mind to honey, he stuck to it. He may always be happy and not be able to think a bad thought but he certainly can’t read other people’s feelings/intentions. After eating all Rabbit had, he’s simply disappointed that there’s no honey left, and – like in the book – doesn’t think about what he inflicted on Rabbit by getting stuck in his front door.

Khitruk’s Pukh
Although the harpsichord title tune and the fairy-tale narrator suggest a deliberate pace, Pukh himself is quite the opposite. Before we see him, we see his tracks and the narrator tells us that he always likes a snack and that he’s a poet writing verses and even small songs. As I’ve written above, Pukh is walking and talking swiftly and comes off as rather gnarly, especially when he sings. He shows hardly a facial expression and pauses from time to time looking into the camera and guessing what to say or do next. His blank looks are funny in itself and combined with brilliant timing define an animated performance as laconic as anything Buster Keaton or Kaurismäki have done.

He is a slow thinker, though. During his first conversation with Piglet he hardly makes eye contact and speaks in choppy phrases. He treats Piglet like a younger brother whose always one step behind but running to catch up. Piglet seems to look up to Pukh and do whatever he demands. Although Piglet is eager to help Pukh, he is still better at doing some things like inflating a balloon.

The emphasis on relationships and character interaction becomes especially apparent in the second film/chapter, where Pukh only gets stuck in the end for a few seconds. Instead the honey-eating part is expanded to show how Pukh is ignorant of the whole politeness concept and how he bosses around Piglet without coming off as a tyrant. In fact, Pukh not only washes his little friend’s face, he also ties a napkin over his mouth so that Piglet isn’t able to eat or say anything during the whole meal. Pukh soon forgets about his proudly displayed social manners when he learns that there is still more food for him.
Although Pukh only thinks about Rabbit's honey...

...he still remembers his manners.
What really makes these characters come to life are such small gestures like in the end when Pukh tries to grab Piglet’s hand to run off with him.

Final Thoughts
Having grown up with Disney’s Pooh featurettes, I was slightly disappointed the first time I saw Khitruks Vinni Pukh not because of its visual simplicity and charming stylization but because it was built around a different title character and most of all, everything I loved about Winnie the Pooh – notably the book and narrator interactions – was missing from this version.

Only after seeing all three Khitruk shorts a second time I began to see why everybody in Eastern Europe was so fond of Pukh. Gradually, the brisk pace and singing became a valuable alternative to the laid-back style of the Sherman Brothers’ songs that in my mind had become synonymous with Winnie the Pooh.

Although both film versions follow the book very closely, even down to the dialogue (according to the subtitles, at least), Khitruk’s substitution of CR with Piglet sounds like a major change but ultimately leads to less detached storytelling than in the Disney version. Pukh’s relationship with Piglet gives us an additional dimension not present in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree* because it doesn't show when Pooh talks only to CR who he looks up to and not Piglet who looks up to him.

After all, and this is true for both adaptations, isn't it refreshing to have a protagonist who only cares about his well-being and never thinks about how his friends feel? Actually, the quirky Russian Pukh is also a more interesting character, simply because he isn’t always happy. I think it’s interesting to see what small decisions can lead to two different characters in roughly the same story.

*Piglet is present in later Disney featurettes, of course, but comes off as a rather different, timid and even stupid character.


sewa elf said...

Very nice, thanks for sharing.

Anelim said...

Awesome post! You might also like to see another Russian Winnie-the-Pooh, illustrated by Viktor Chizhikov. It was not made into a movie, but was a very popular edition of the book. I grew up watching the animation you analysed, and rereading this book, and when I finally saw the Shephard's original illustrations many years on, I could not believe it - much like you found Winnie Pukh odd! Here is a nice selection of the images

Oswald Iten said...

@Anelim: Thanks for the Chizhikov illustrations. I've never seen those.
I've come to adore Khitruk's Vinni Pukh and hope that someday the copyright fix is solved and we will see an official Western DVD release.

oisee said...

BTW, there is another interesting Disney/Soviet animation pair to compare and analyse: "Alice in wonderland"+"Alice through the looking-glass". Animated version by Eugen Pruzhansky is closer to the Lewis Carroll's text, and has a different sense of madness and magic =) I've seen english-subbed versions on youtube.

Аркадий said...

Full version:

Anonymous said...

If you speak russian

Anonymous said...

It might be of interest to add that Khitruk spent lots of time trying to create his Winnie. He did not know about the US cartoon - thanks to the Iron Curtain (!) - since as Khitruk later said that if he had known about it, his Pooh would hardly have been born.

So, one day Khitruk decided to start from the opposite direction: one of the greatest Russian actors Evgeny Leonov was invited to speak as Winnie. And when Leonov stood up at the microphone, Khitruk saw his bear alive.

You would probably also agree that Russian Winnie is a relative of Leonov:

Oswald Iten said...

I was aware of the fact that Khitruk didn't know about the Disney Pooh, fortunately for us, I'd say.

I didn't know about the actor, though. Thanks for the photo link!
It's interesting that the concept of an actor shaping an animated character was common on both sides of the Iron Curtain.