By Richard "Loomis" Gray
It will come as no surprise to the regular members of this site's forum that I enjoy the Winnie the Pooh cartoons. To me, they represent a connection with childhood that none of us will ever lose, as long as we can retain the simple outlook of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. Indeed, the recent publication of the books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff explored this very idea: "While Eeyore frets and Piglet hesitates and Rabbit calculates and Owl pontificates, Pooh just is."
I also think they are as cute as all hell.
With the current litigation going on over the rights to this beloved character (subsequently found in Disney's favor in 2004), it seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on the history of the silly old bear, and the impact that the shorts and subsequent Disney film - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) - have had, and why I believe this character endures as a popular force even now.
While most DIScussions have focused on a single film, and the merits of that, I wanted to take a slightly different approach. In the course of writing this DIScussion, I found it impossible to talk about Winnie the Pooh without exploring some aspects of A.A. Milne's stories, and more to the point, without exploring the original shorts that comprised the film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This serves the dual purpose of providing a background to my discussion, and providing UltimateDisney.com with a bit of a 'Pooh history' which will hopefully serve a good reference point in the future.
So indulge me if you will while I go back and explore the bear behind the bear.
When A.A. Milne first published the Hundred Acre Wood stories in 1926, based on the stuffed toys that populated his son's room, there was no telling just how successful the character would eventually become. Although he was already known in England and the "colonies" (yes, Australia too), the United States were yet to be introduced to the silly old bear. And that is where Disney ultimately came in. However, before we investigate that part of the story, it is worthwhile examining both the source material and its creator for a little bit.
Disney and the Silly Old Bear
The involvement of Disney with the character of Winnie the Pooh is covered in great depth in the fantastic 'Disney's Winnie the Pooh: A Celebration of the Silly Old Bear' by Christopher Finch, as well as the supplements of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh Friendship Edition DVD (UltimateDisney.com DVD Review). As a result, I will not go too much into detail here, as this is only to serve as a 'Pooh primer'.
All of the Disney staff were familiar with and enthusiastic about a Pooh project. Although attempts were made to secure the rights from A.A. Milne, theatrical rights were never sold during the lifetime of Milne. However, shortly after Milne's death in 1956, his wife gave television rights to the US National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), who wanted to start a Pooh series. However, after an unsuccessful pilot, the idea was abandoned. (In October of 1960, NBC did air a "Winnie the Pooh" installment of the hour-long series "Shirley Temple's Storybook" in which the famous actress host, then in her early 30s, played Christopher Robin's mother.)
Once the theatrical rights came up, Walt bought them with the intention of producing a feature length film in 1961. However, work did not commence until 1964 when, in a staff meeting, Walt decided to ease the American audience into Winnie the Pooh with a series of theatrical 'featurettes.'
The first of the Winnie the Pooh shorts to come out of the studio was Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966). Production continued on Pooh stories after Walt's death in 1966, and the 25-minute Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968). This won the Academy Award for an Animated Short Subject that year, a testament to the hard work of the Disney animators. This of course led to a third film, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974), which was just as successful. Rather than DIScuss each of these here, I will do so within the context of their theatrical compilation, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977).
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - A DIScussion
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is essentially a "package feature", much like the cost-savings pieces of the 1940s. It was not the first time Disney had combined several of their shorter subjects into a full-length film: Davy Crockett was a notable example from the 1950s.
The animation itself is quite interesting. Although E.H Shepherd created the brilliant original illustrations for Milne's books, it is perhaps the Disney versions of the Pooh characters that most are familiar with today. With most of the 'Nine Old Men' all being assigned to other top projects (Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Milt Kahl were working on The Jungle Book, for example), Wolfgang Reitherman was handed the directorial chores. While the Pooh fans (including Frank and Ollie) were a little put off at not getting the assignment, it was Walt's decision to put a non-fan on the project, hoping he would have the reaction he did and 'Americanize' the stories (Finch, 2000, p. 39). The Americanizing of Pooh will be dealt with later on. However, the primary task that needed to be done was to animate Shepherd's characters - drawn in a 'broken line' style - and that was not an easy task. However, the 'Disneyfied' versions of these characters - despite being called a 'travesty' by Shepherd - have warmth about them too. The addition of Pooh's red T-shirt by Disney provided the animators not only with an easier means of animating the largely fur creature, but gave Pooh a distinctive Disney stamp which would forever associate the two. While the animation changes a bit throughout the feature (being three cartoons made over the course of eight years), some of it more successful than others, there is no doubt how iconic these images have become. There are so many unsung gems of animation in this film. In particular, the 'Heffalumps and Woozles' dream sequence has some incredibly trippy animation, often overlooked for such other classics as the 'Pink Elephants on Parade' scene in Dumbo or anything in Alice in Wonderland. Although Shepherd may not have approved, I personally believe that there is a 'quaint' look about the film that gives it an almost timeless quality. Sure, animation has improved in the last thirty years, but that is the thing about Pooh - he is not of any time, he just is.
Unlike some package features - which tended to skip from one unrelated story to the next via a convoluted linking motif - this film manages to maintain a consistent storybook feel throughout, something which I believe has made the film all the more endearing to viewers over the years. Opening on a live-action shot of a young boy's room, the film uses the storybook motif through, not just as a linking device between the segments, but as a character in the stories themselves. The narrator refers to Owl talking from page to page; and Tigger even leaps and climbs completely off the page at times! However, perhaps the most welcome addition to the feature film is the postscript in which Christopher Robin tells Pooh that although he is going off to school, they will remain friends forever. One gets the feeling Milne would have liked that. (However, while this was meant to be the end of the saga, Disney continued the story 20 years later in Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Winnie the Pooh. One gets the feeling Milne may not have liked that).
Perhaps the only quibble one could make with the film is the Americanization of the English Pooh stories. Walt's intention was to do this the whole time - he wanted to bring the characters to a mass American audience. Ironically, bringing those characters he loved to a mass American audience meant that he was going to change them. Gopher stands out as the most obvious addition, but is done with a self-referential style. Offering his services to help get Pooh out of a hole, he remarks "I'm not in the book…", literally saying he is not listed in the phone book, while simultaneously winking at a knowing audience. While he serves no harm to the story, and is certainly a memorable character, I do question whether it was necessary to add him. It was almost as if Walt was not trusting the audience to follow him into something not wholly American, particularly after Alice in Wonderland was not the smash-hit he hoped it would be. However, it is interesting to note that in this feature version, Christopher Robin has been re-dubbed to make him British throughout! There is no doubting that the Disney version of the film has had a lasting effect, which is still strongly felt today.
The Magical World of Winnie the Pooh
We now live in a time when a new Winnie the Pooh product - be it a DVD/Video, plush toy, storybook, games, mugs, pens, key-rings or any other type of merchandise you could imagine - is out from Disney seemingly every week. It would seem that the impact the original Winnie the Pooh cartoons have had is almost impossible to measure - although I would say that almost every child on the planet is familiar with the character. Would this have been possible based solely on the A.A. Milne stories? It is possible. But it is undeniable that the characters of Pooh and friends have become most recognizable through their Disney counterparts, and that is due largely to those cartoons that comprise The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
§ Finch, C. Disney's Winnie the Pooh: A Celebration of the Silly Old Bear (Disney Editions: New York, 2000).
Unquestionably the best account of the Disney involvement in the Pooh story. Fairly current, and full of sketches, interviews, art work and galleries. A MUST have for any fan of Disney Pooh, or even animation.
§ Maltin, L. The Disney Films: Fourth Edition (Disney Editions: New York, 2000)
An excellent source on all things Disney generally, while this does not contain huge references to Pooh, it does place the release of the Pooh shorts and films in context. Certainly a worthwhile read in any case.
Further Viewing - A 'Poohography':
In response to a thread posted on the UltimateDisney.com forum, and as a useful reference guide, here is a list of all the major Winnie the Pooh releases (not counting every video compilation, though) from 1966 onwards.
§ Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966) (short)
§ Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) (short)
§ Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974) (short)
The three shorts that comprise The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), discussed at length above and reviewed here. The film's 25th Anniversary Edition DVD was discontinued and re-released, with a bonus episode of "My Friends Tigger & Pooh", as The Friendship Edition (read our review). Meanwhile, Blustery Day has also turned up as a bonus feature on the Region 1 Pooh's Grand Adventure DVD. (Review here.)
§ Winnie the Pooh Discovers the Seasons (1981)
Theatrical 8-minute educational short. There were 3 other such shorts produced.
§ Winnie the Pooh and Friends (TV) (1982)
Show in which existing Pooh footage, along with other Disney animated movies, was mixed.
§ A Day of Eeyore (1983) (short)
While not quite up to the standard of the other Winnie the Pooh shorts (the voice characterisation is completely different, for example) it is an interesting a worthwhile piece nonetheless. Available as a supplement on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh DVD (also available in the UK and Australia).
§ "Welcome to Pooh Corner" (TV series) (1983)
"Puppetronic" version of the characters. Unsure of its success, but Disney wisely moved back to animated Pooh after this.
§ "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" (TV series) (1988-1990)
Almost 30 years after NBC's failed attempt, Disney makes a success out of a Pooh TV series. It won Daytime Emmy awards in 1989 and 1990 for Best Animated Program. DVD volumes that compile assorted episodes of the show have been released in the United Kingdom and Australia for the past several years, and in February 2005, they finally made their way to the US as "Growing Up with Winnie the Pooh."
US - "Growing Up with Winnie the Pooh": Vol. 1 - A Great Day of Discovery (Review), Vol. 2 - Friends Forever (Review), Vol. 4 - It's Playtime with Pooh (Review), Vol. 5 - Love & Friendship (Review); Vol. 3 - All for One, One for All was released exclusively as part of a Winnie the Pooh 2-pack (paired with either Merry Pooh Year or Seasons of Giving) at Target outlets in the fall of 2005.
UK - "Magical World of Winnie the Pooh": Vol. 1 - All For One And One For All, Vol. 2 - Little Things Mean A Lot, Vol. 3 - It's Playtime With Pooh (very unfortunate title), Vol. 4 - A Great Day Of Discovery, Vol. 5 - Friends Forever, Vol. 6 - Love and Friendship, Vol. 7 - Share Your World, and Vol. 8 - Growing Up With Pooh.
Other Region 1 titles featuring "New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" episodes: Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving (10th Anniversary Edition DVD Review), The Tigger Movie: 10th Anniversary Edition (Review), Winnie the Pooh: Frankenpooh / Spookable Pooh (5 episodes)
Not strictly a Pooh film per se, but Pooh appears prominently on the cover. Produced by Wang Film Productions, this 30-minute TV special has well-known TV characters tell a kid why doing drugs is bad. As if talking animals weren't the first sign. Other characters included Tigger, the Chipmunks, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Huey, Dewey, Louie, The Smurfs, Garfield, Muppet Babies, Slimer, and, of course, Gordon 'ALF' Shumway. Currently Out of Print. You can still find this gem on VHS at Amazon Marketplace.
§ Winnie the Pooh & Christmas Too! (1991)
§ Boo! To You Too! Winnie the Pooh (1996)
§ A Winnie the Pooh Thanksgiving (1998)
§ Winnie the Pooh, A Valentine For You (1998)
A series of holiday specials that appeared on TV starting 1991. They are now staples of the Pooh canon, appeariong on DVDs made partly from these specials, partly from the TV series and a few new linking bits thrown in for good measure. These four specials are available on the DVDs Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (Review); Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie (Review, Gift Set Review); Seasons of Giving (10th Anniversary Edition DVD Review); and Winnie the Pooh: Un-Valentine’s Day and A Valentine For You, respectively. Expect more to come.
§ Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin (1997)
The first legitimately full-length follow-up to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (some may argue the first legitimately full-length Pooh, given the other ones were really compilations). It was finally released to DVD in the US in April 2006 as a "Special Edition" and in widescreen (read our review), but it had previously been available for some time in the UK (Region 2).
§ The Tigger Movie (2000)
The first theatrically released Pooh film in over twenty years, this DisneyToon production earned a respectable $45 million at the box office, assuring all that a lower-budget Disney movie could prove quite potent in the low-key early months of the year. (10th Anniversary Edition DVD, Our Review.)
§ "The Book of Pooh" (TV series) (2001 - 2002)
This Pooh series is aimed at a much younger audience (pre-schoolers, I think). They are more education based, than entertainment. Uses a mix of computer 2D / 3D animation and the ancient Japanese puppet technique of Bunraku. (On DVD, in the US: The Book of Pooh: Stories from the Heart, The Book of Pooh: Just Say Boo!/Rolie Polie Olie: A Spookie Ookie Halloween. On DVD, in the UK (Region 2): Stories from the Heart, Fun with Friends, Fun with Make-Believe, Fun with Manners.)
§ Piglet's Big Movie (2003)
Piglet gets this limelight in this theatrically-released feature from DisneyToon, with all new songs from Carly Simon (who looks downright scary in the end-credit sequence). Available on DVD - read our review.
§ Springtime With Roo (2004)
Despite the title, this direct-to-video film actually centers around Rabbit as he tries to ignore Easter altogether, but sees what would happen if the holiday vanished. Read our DVD review. Available on DVD (and in the UK).
§ Pooh's Heffalump Movie (2005)
One of the much-feared Heffalumps makes his way into the Hundred Acre Wood. His name is Lumpy and he turns out to not be so bad. This film opened in theaters February 2005 and is now available on DVD. (Buy the DVD / read UD's DVD review.
§ Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie (2005)
This recent direct-to-video film from DisneyToon Studios was released to DVD in time for Halloween 2005 and re-released in a limited 2009 gift set with plush. Buy it here and read UD's reviews here and here.
§ "My Friends Tigger and Pooh" (TV series) (2007-2010)
Reruns of "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" were still airing seven days a week when this debuted, so it wasn't exactly the bear's "return" to the Disney Channel. Still, it was the gang's first new television series in several years and represented a pretty significant effort to update the universe. Similar to "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse", this employed long-popular characters in a computer-animated, preschooler-oriented, problem-solving series. It was cancelled after two seasons.
DVD Releases: Super Sleuth Christmas Movie (Review), Friendly Tails (Review), Hundred Acre Wood Haunt (Review), Tigger & Pooh and a Musical Too (Review); Episode on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Friendship Edition (Review)