Friday, July 15, 2011

Oh Bother! Yet Another Pooh (NO SPOILERS)

Around the time Winnie the Pooh (2011) was released last spring, someone asked me whether Disney’s many Pooh films always told the same story and I had to admit that I’ve lost track of which element popped up in which featurette. Having more recent memories of the Russian version that also follows Milne’s chapters very closely I found it was time to take another look at both The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1966-77) and Fyodor Khitruk’s Vinni Pukh (1969-72) to clarify the situation.

While I’m not interested in meticulously relating the Milne chapters to the many film versions here, I like to share a few thoughts about the new Pooh today (its US release date) and have a closer look at the way Disney/Reitherman and Khitruk tell their stories, respectively, in a future post.

It was probably the first time ever that an animated Disney feature was released in Switzerland months before its American release date (on April 14, to be precise). Although it wasn’t eclipsed by Harry Potter it understandably went under the radar of most moviegoers and wasn’t perceived as the major Disney release of 2011. After numerous direct-to-video features and an omnipresent TV-show the prospects of yet another return of the (meanwhile trademarked) Disney-fied Winnie the Pooh were not especially exciting, to put it mildly.

Apart from my intention to see every theatrically released hand drawn Disney feature at least once (consciously avoiding upgraded direct-to-video releases like Bambi 2), there was another – wholly unexpected – reason to see it: the poster.

Although this is one of those familiar promotional group pictures where the characters are not really interacting or aren’t even arranged in an overall pose, it told me very clearly what to expect. All the characters are on the lookout for something to fight against except for Eeyore who is missing his tail and Pooh at the center who is looking for honey. There’s not much overlapping and we see the silhouettes very clearly so the animals appear as individuals rather than a tight-knit group.

But what intrigued me was the horned silhouette that gives us a hint of what the animals’ opponent might look like. It also reminds us that they might be once again chasing a figment of their imagination because they see things differently than they are – after all, it’s just a tree-top, anything else is interpretation at this point.

Mildly enjoyable, but really more of the same
The film itself is not bad measured by the three Pooh shorts that made up The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). Closely inspired by some of A.A. Milne’s original Pooh stories the 2011 edition is able to capture the spirit of chasing one’s own shadow that made the early shorts so charming to me. All the familiar elements are intact and feel more of a piece but less inspired than before. It seems only consistent that the main feature is accompanied by a narrator-driven short that has “retro” and “hommage” written all over it.

Paul Felix (with Patrick Sullivan and his team) has to be credited for translating the 1960s water color background style to the computer era. As expected, the pencil clean-up is a lot less charming (with fake construction lines that are sometimes not even in the right place).

At first, I resented the redesign of Christopher Robin who now looks even blander than ever with his newly white eyes instead of the charming buttons. But considering the logic of having white eyes for real forest animals and button eyes for stuffed animals it is only appropriate. Eeyore seems to be an exception to the rule, but then maybe sad eyes aren't possible with buttons and he really isn't made of fluff inside his head... who knows...

Story less episodic, characters still simplified
The biggest difference is that this time the supposedly three Milne stories are interwoven rather than told as separate episodes, so despite a running time of only about an hour the new movie feels more like a feature than the 1977 film. Combining the elements of several chapters into one long episode has the advantage that the story arcs can be expanded without having to come up with more complex information within each narrative thread and the plot points can be dispersed more evenly across the film.

Familiar diversions such as song- and dream-sequences in different drawing styles and tongue-in-cheek elements try to mask the fact that Pooh and his friends are still serial characters who therefore can’t have a real character arc, i.e. undergo real changes.

Pooh himself is maybe telling us one too many times that he’s a “bear of very little brain” (as opposed to just being a “silly old bear”) which reminded me of Kung-Fu Panda’s Po. Piglet is acting less timidly than outright stupidly, which is a pity. All things considered the characters are coherent within the Disney-Pooh universe. Given the simple story and the amount of dialogue scenes I believe the opportunity to write (and animate) more complex characters without losing their established personality would have been there.

As always the book and narrator are part of the story with the letters probably more emphasized than in previous versions. Although the story contains many elements of Chapter Five in which Rabbit has a busy day, and we learn what Christopher Robin does in the mornings from Milne’s “House at Pooh Corner” with its many references to reading and spelling, the most interesting part of that chapter unfortunately didn’t make it into the film, although it would have contained the potential to explore Eeyore’s character beyond the “everything happens to me” attitude:

Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.
‘Oh, Eeyore,’ he began again, ‘I just –‘
‘Is that little Piglet?’ said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.
‘Yes, Eeyore, and I –‘
(original colour illustration by E.H.Shepard)
‘Do you know what this is?’
‘No’ said Piglet.
‘It’s an A.’
‘Oh,’ said Piglet.
‘Not O – A,’ said Eeyore severely. ‘Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?’
‘Yes,’ said Piglet. ‘No,’ said Piglet very quickly. And he came closer still.
‘Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is – until somebody treads on it,’ Eeyore added sternly.
Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.
‘Do you know what A means, little Piglet?’
‘No, Eeyore, I don’t.’
‘It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.’
‘Oh,’ said Piglet again. ‘I mean, does it?’ he explained quickly.
‘I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, “It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.” They walk to and fro saying “Ha-ha!” But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated – mark this, little Piglet – to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,’ he added, ‘just something that anybody can come and breathe on.’

So while the opportunity to further explore the well-known characters is ignored throughout, the story focuses on the “storm in a teapot” elements (like chasing a Backson and finding Eeyore's tail) decorated with mandatory, uplifting messages about friendship. A storm in a teapot, little more, is what this gentle imitation of – rather than a sequel to – The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh really feels like.

1 comment:

Gwynn.D.Earl said...

When ya gotta pooh, ya gotta pooh..

Don't know if this would be any interest to you:

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