Winnie the Pooh seems to be forgotten about in the UK. For some time now, Disney have been putting the number of the classic on the side of DVDs and Blu-Rays. These numbers correspond with when they were released in cinemas and I’ve been following that order for this very project, right up until No.50, Tangled. Number 51, according to the sides of boxes in the UK, however, is Wreck-It Ralph. A confusing blip, as most other sources list Winnie as 51 and Ralph as 52, hence the idea of the project to watch 52 in a year, one a week (though I hardly stuck to that by the end). Yet Winnie the Pooh was undoubtedly made by Walt Disney animation studios and it DID have a theatrical release over here. So why the decision to leave it out of the canon? It’s perhaps a triviality but for an obsessive like myself it’s disconcerting. Will all future Disneys in the UK be one number behind? Perhaps Disney were embarrassed by Pooh, although that hardly seems likely as the film is a charming, child friendly ramble through the Hundred Acre Wood.
Admittedly, the two Winnie the Pooh films are a bit of an oddity in the canon, stylistically and tonally incongruous with the the other fifty. A.A. Milne’s unique brand of whimsy does not translate to gripping adventures or heartfelt fairy tales, instead creating films where the sum total of incident is a stuffed donkey losing its tail and some other toys getting trapped down a hole while they try and catch an imaginary creature. Yet this resolutely gentle style of storytelling means that the charm of the Pooh films is quite unique to these two adaptations. They’re funny without forcing it, quirky without trying and beautifully, inventively animated.
The 2011 edition doesn’t add much to Wolfgang Reitherman’s superior 1977 film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but it reuses the meta stylings of that children’s masterpiece often to great effect. By borrowing from brilliance this, too, hints at such invention and wit. Pooh once more interacts with the narrator (here John Cleese on fine form) and occasionally stumbles out of the illustrated sections of his book, and the writing is again affected by the events of the narrative. Words are dragged or blown or fall into the story, and the characters have even more fun with them this time. At one point, they even become a crucial plot point to help the stranded heroes. Such playfulness is always a joy to watch, and it used brilliantly in this second Pooh film.
The animation is once again unshowily beautiful, the backgrounds in particular looking a lot like Shepard’s line drawings. The colours seem to be a bit brighter this time, and the character animation is bolder and clearer than in the ’77 film, but this still looks as though it were made in a different era. It’s as far a cry from the lush lighting and immaculately detailed CG of Tangled as you can imagine from Disney, once again showing that this film feels out of place at Disney. This truly seems to be the last hand drawn film from the studio, a quietly brilliant tribute to the beauty of the medium, showcasing its capacity for invention and atmosphere even as it dies to the onward march of pixellated progress.
The only thing that feels modern about Winnie the Pooh is that the voice cast is noticeably different to the older, familiar voices of The Many Adventures. Put quite bluntly, they are just not as good, voice acting veteran Jim Cummings no match as Pooh compared to the inimitable Sterling Holloway. Bud Luckey’s attempt at Eeyore is disastrous, and the sense of the cast as a whole is that they don’t quite gel in the same way. The less said about Zooey Deschanel’s songs the better.
Winnie the Pooh feels like a small, independent production and a far cry from the studio that made hyper-slick films like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. It’s a low key, rusty film that moves at a different pace to everything else that Disney makes. As such, it’s sure to gain a devoted audience of young fans (and a few older ones, too), but it perhaps explains why Disney were not so keen to acknowledge it as part of their canon of classics. It’s a shame, however, that this is excluded when Saludos Amigos isn’t, as this is a happy, charming film full of gentle delights.