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Winnie the Pooh: DVD + Blu-ray Review

Winnie the Pooh (2011) movie poster Winnie the Pooh

Theatrical Release: July 15, 2011 / Running Time: 63 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Stephen Anderson, Don Hall / Writers: Stephen Anderson, Clio Chiang, Don Dougherty, Don Hall, Kendelle Hoyer, Brian Kessinger, Nicole Mitchell, Jeremy Spears (story); A.A. Milne, E.H. Shepard ("Winnie the Pooh" works)

Voice Cast: John Cleese (Narrator), Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh, Tigger), Bud Luckey (Eeyore), Craig Ferguson (Owl), Jack Boulter (Christopher Robin), Travis Oates (Piglet), Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Kanga), Wyatt Dean Hall (Roo), Tom Kenny (Rabbit), Huell Howser (Backson)

Songs: "Winnie the Pooh Theme Song", "The Tummy Song", "A Very Important Thing to Do", "The Winner Song", "The Backson Song", "It's Gonna Be Great", "Everything is Honey", "The Winner Song Finale", "So Long"

Buy Winnie the Pooh from Amazon.com: DVD + Blu-ray Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy DVD Instant Video

It's been five years since Disney bought Pixar and made John Lasseter chief creative officer of both animation studios. Things haven't drastically changed at Pixar, which aside from this summer's release has continued to blaze a trail of innovation, profit, and accolades. But Lasseter's reign has brought a number of interesting developments to Disney.
For instance, the direct-to-video sequels stopped almost immediately; only the Tinker Bell movies and the occasional talking dog pic have since gone that route. With Lasseter overseeing them, Disney's feature animation department stopped trying to follow trends and acknowledged its own legacies in traditional animation and fairy tales. There have been title changes; American Dog was renamed Bolt, Rapunzel became Tangled. There have been personnel changes, some amicable (Glen Keane stepping down from directing Tangled) and some costly (Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois moving to DreamWorks, after creative differences on what would become Bolt).

Then there is one Lasseter Era move I might appreciate above all others: at his encouragement, Disney took Winnie the Pooh back to where he started. Not all the way back to A.A. Milne's best-selling children's books of the 1920s, but back to something closely resembling Disney's earliest adaptations of the stories. Three featurettes of the late 1960s and early 1970s were compiled for the 1977 feature film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Afterwards, Pooh and his fellow animal inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood became some of the Disney Channel's earliest stars in the animatronic puppet series "Welcome to Pooh Corner." They returned to 2D animation in the Emmy-winning series "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" and endured in popularity, ranking as one of the strongest character brands around in merchandise sales.

The franchise spawned three new theatrical movies in the early 2000s and a host of original and reconfigured direct-to-video releases. The output got progressively worse and not only that it got more and more childish. Even though Milne's books had won over readers of all ages and even though kids weren't buying movie tickets and merchandise, Disney seemed set on the idea that Pooh was strictly for little ones, those not even old enough to attend school.

I suspect that "My Friends Tigger & Pooh" may have been the turning point for Lasseter. The computer-animated Playhouse Disney series tried applying "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse"-type treatment to the Hundred Acre Wood gang, only throwing out fidelity and Christopher Robin to make Pooh, Tigger, and their spunky new human friend Darby mystery-solving "super sleuths." Maybe it wasn't quite as bad as that sounds, but the only way you'd know that is if you were or had a 5-year-old child a few years ago.

As usual, Winnie the Pooh's adventures are relayed as a sort of living storybook. Also as usual, the adventures involve Pooh's hunger-inducing exercises.

Winnie the Pooh tries to undo at least ten years of creative erosion and return Pooh and company to the general audiences appeal that they once held. Adapted from three of Milne's stories, this short, sweet feature film is as interested in staying true to the books as to the studio's initial treatment of them, which won Walt Disney his final Academy Award posthumously.

You should need no introduction to the Hundred Acre Wood residents. The honey-loving bear of little brain, his timid and tiny pal Piglet, bouncy and boisterous Tigger, gloomy donkey Eeyore, fussy gardener Rabbit, mother Kanga and her young joey Roo, and tale-telling almost literate Owl are all here, along with the boy from whose imagination they all spring to life, Christopher Robin. Life in the Wood is generally tranquil, with each character having their own home and interests. But the tight-knit community always comes together, usually bonded in fear or excitement and almost always over some innocent misunderstanding.

This movie is all about staying true to those certainties and possessing the charming qualities of Milne's writings. Characters invented by Disney, like Lumpy the lavender Heffalump of Pooh's Heffalump Movie, Kessie the blue bird of television episodes and Seasons of Giving, and even the whistling Gopher cleverly concocted by Walt's story men ("not in the book, you know") are not featured here. Only the original text's personalities are present, even Owl, who was inexplicably cast out in recent years.

For obvious reasons, the film is less fragmented than Many Adventures. Like most of the Pooh movies, this is presented as a storybook with an omniscient narrator (John Cleese, taking a role previously held by the likes of David Ogden Stiers, John Hurt, and Sebastian Cabot) interacting with the characters, who themselves occasionally interact with the text and turning pages.

The rotund "tumbly" of Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings for 23 years and counting now) is characteristically rumbly and can only be quenched by a full pot of honey. Coincidentally, that is the prize promised to whoever can solve the mystery of Eeyore's (Pixar story man and repeat voice actor Bud Luckey) missing tail. The gang brainstorms replacement tails, to no avail. Their attentions turn elsewhere when their search for Christopher Robin leads them to a note, which is misread by Owl (late night host Craig Ferguson) to mention something called a "Backson."

Owl explains all about the disruptive Backson in song, which raises enough fear to prompt the gang to set a trap for him. In doing so, of course, they wind up stuck in the hole and in need of rescue. Such minor conflict is not so easily resolved but by the time it is, the end credits are about to roll. Even counting the long closing scroll, the film clocks in at just over 63 minutes, which makes it the shortest film in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon since the 1940s.

A red balloon is one of the more appropriate items Eeyore's friends use to replace his missing tail. Tigger joins the gang (and scattered letters) at the bottom of the trap pit they set for the Backson.

That is really the only criticism that anyone will lob at Pooh: it is slight and over sooner than you would expect. In this way, it falls short of Many Adventures, which despite its origins is tremendously cohesive and satisfying as a feature film. In some ways, Pooh can also be compared unfavorably to 2000's The Tigger Movie, which delivered a single feature-length narrative skillfully and faithfully. That movie's artistic and commercial successes are largely responsible for the franchise's prominence well into this century. There is little question that this new Pooh is at least in the same league as Tigger and better than the majority of the gang's outings over the years.

Tigger Movie had offered appealing visuals above and beyond the TV series and direct-to-video movies that had preceded it. And that was just a production by DisneyToon Studios, the unit that handled DTV sequels. This Pooh employs some of Disney's most accomplished 2D animators, people like Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, and Eric Goldberg, who worked on films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. You could be depressed that the best work available to these talented individuals -- supervising animators of characters like Ariel, Belle, the Genie, and Scar -- is a series that had long been the domain of Disney's farm team. Or you could be pleased that Pooh, Tigger, et al. -- personalities as iconic as any in Disney's annals -- are at last being treated with respect and entrusted to master artists. The latter isn't just more comforting but also more fitting because though it is thin, Pooh does deliver the magic and heart forever associated with hand-drawn Disney feature animation. Also, there is ample opportunity for imaginative expression, most notably in the chalky Backson song sequence in the tradition of "Heffalumps & Woozles" and Dumbo's "Pink Elephants on Parade."

Whereas The Tigger Movie boasted new songs from Richard and Robert Sherman, the legendary duo who had penned tunes for the original featurettes and countless other Disney movies including Mary Poppins, this one gets its music from an unlikely place: Robert Lopez, one of the writers of the Tony-winning musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez. They're not unacquainted with family-oriented fare, having written for the Finding Nemo musical at Disney's Animal Kingdom and episodes of Nickelodeon's "Wonder Pets" and Disney Channel's "Phineas and Ferb." Several of the Lopezes' six original songs do have the same immediately infectious quality as the Shermans' numbers. Some of them (as well as the brothers' title theme) are performed not by characters but by actress-singer Zooey Deschanel, who also penned the end credits theme "So Long." The arrangement sort of recalls Carly Simon's vocals on Piglet's Big Movie, but Deschanel's singing is less intrusive and not as heavily promoted.

The Hundred Acre Wood gang gets a chalky, colorful makeover in Owl's fear-instilling "The Backson Song." Paradise for Winnie the Pooh is reveling in a world of computer-generated honey in a bee-inspired leotard.

I knew Winnie the Pooh would have a tough time getting people to know that its characters were no longer strictly for the kiddies. Still, Disney did the movie no favors by opening it on the same day as the much-anticipated, record-shattering finale Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Released a couple of months later, The Lion King's reissue and Dolphin Tale both performed well. Released five months earlier, Gnomeo & Juliet did even better business than them.
In either of those less competitive seasons, Pooh could have enjoyed at least a healthy box office run. Instead, word-of-mouth only carried the film to $26.7 million domestically, shy of the $30 million production budget and the grosses of all but a handful of summer movies. At least it earned more than Mars Needs Moms (which cost five times as much to make) and more than any Pooh film since 2000's sleeper hit The Tigger Movie (though ticket inflation indicates that Piglet's Big Movie was better attended).

I dread speculating on how the movie's weak showing might be interpreted by Disney. Is it just another sign that audiences prefer computer animation to hand-drawn? The Lion King's success suggests otherwise. Is it that Winnie the Pooh only appeals to the very young? There is plenty of market research to dispute that. I hope what the studio takes from this is that mid-July is when Warner Bros. opens their biggest movie of the year and that counterprogramming against it and all the other tentpole releases still in play is futile.

I also hope that Winnie the Pooh gets recognized for its creative achievements. I'd rank it a close second behind Rango of the seven 2011 animated films I've seen so far and while we might well be headed for only a three-deep Best Animated Feature category at next winter's Oscars, I hope that it has a legitimate shot to claim one of the nominations in spite of lingering notions of the Pooh gang's intended audience. Pooh had one of the highest critical approval ratings among all of this year's movies, but I suspect expectations may stand in its way if the few year-end animated releases do not.

There's a hint to Pooh's preschool history in the home video treatment Disney gives the film next week. The edition sent to reviewers is a DVD + Blu-ray, housed in a DVD case and shelved in stores accordingly, suggesting that the Blu-ray is the bonus rather than the reality that the DVD is a lightweight afterthought. The only way to get the film in Blu-ray packaging is to opt for the Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo, which merely adds a digital copy DVD-ROM to the same two discs.

Watch "Setting the Trap", a clip from Winnie the Pooh:

Winnie the Pooh: DVD + Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD & Blu-ray Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English, French), DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: October 25, 2011
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9 & BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Black Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in standalone Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy ($44.99 SRP),
standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP), and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

New movies are rarely subject to visual shortcomings on Blu-ray Disc these days. Still, having caught the movie at a second-run theater last month, it's refreshing to see how much better and how breathtaking Winnie the Pooh looks here. The 1.78:1 widescreen presentation is naturally spotless, but it's also so vibrant and picturesque, allowing you to marvel at the delightfully simple visuals and lush backgrounds in great detail. Maybe the simplicity and serenity factors into it, but the transfer is just so strikingly sharp and clean. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is also satisfying, with the crisp elements mixed appropriately and with suitable vigor.

Sampling the DVD, I found it to be no slouch either. It doesn't have the same visual power as the Blu-ray, but there is nothing beyond resolution and compression techniques to explain that. The DVD's element is also clean and sharp and its Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is fine too.

Story supervisor and longtime Disney animator Burny Mattinson is celebrated aurally and in onscreen words in "Winnie the Pooh and His Story Too." The brisk appearance of Rabbit's colorful friends and relations was cut from the film but is preserved in the Blu-ray and DVD's deleted scenes section.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

For over seven years now, the newest Disney animated classics have received a modest selection of bonus features on home video. Winnie the Pooh adds to that tradition, providing even a bit less than usual on Blu-ray (where all are in HD) and almost nothing on DVD.

First up is "Winnie the Pooh and His Story Too" (8:33), a making-of featurette designed like the movie itself.
It starts with A.A. Milne, moves to Walt Disney's adaptations, and then turns our attentions to this production, focusing on the efforts of story supervisor Burny Mattinson, who worked on the original featurettes and many other animated Disney films since the early 1950s, and briefly touching upon a research trip.

Next, we get five deleted scenes (15:06), each introduced by directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall. They present an extended version of Pooh's "Tummy Song", a scene with Rabbit's brisk and otherwise absent critter friends and relations (taken from Milne's stories), alternate Eeyore and Tigger introductions, and Pooh searching his house for Eeyore's missing tail. They're shown in a mix of finished animation, uncolored pencil animation, and storyboard drawings.

Though exiled by progress, things turn out okay for Nessie and her rubber duck MacQuack in the new Disney animated short "The Ballad of Nessie." Winnie the Pooh's balloon-powered search for honey from Disney's first Pooh cartoon gets redone in "Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Pooh's Balloon."

Two bonus shorts are included.

The Ballad of Nessie (5:32) played before Pooh in theaters. This new Disney short follows the Loch Ness monster as she and her rubber duck MacQuack try to find a new home after she is exiled by progress. It is much in the style of classic Disney cartoons, with narrator Billy Connolly even sounding like Sterling Holloway might have with a Scottish accent.

"Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Pooh's Balloon" (2:47) offers an updated taste of The Many Adventures, specifically, Pooh's "Little Black Rain Cloud" number from opening act Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. Cleese replaces Sebastian Cabot as narrator, while Jim Cummings revoices Holloway's Pooh dialogue. It looks very sharp in hi-def and a little cramped in widescreen, neither of which the original film has previously been treated to. The presentation suggests this is the first in an ongoing series, which strikes me as a little pointless. Why not just include the full 25-minute short in its original form with its original soundtrack? There was even room for the full 78-minute Many Adventures in HD had Disney wanted to turn this into one of their 2-Movie Collections.

A couple of standard musical enhancements are offered. "Sing Along with the Movie" plays the movie with animated lyric subtitles over them. Just follow the bouncing ball sliding red balloon! In the same vein, "Disney Song Selection" allows you to watch only the seven musical numbers with the lyrics. Jump to an individual tune or string them together to make an 11-minute all-musical version with song title cards introducing each. It's a nice feature which Disney has been leaving off some recent releases.

Baby planners Ellie and Melissa have great design ideas for you if you want your newborn to grow up in a bland nursery decorated exclusively with Winnie the Pooh imagery. The DVD narrows the Blu-ray's menu so as not to subject viewers to chopped-off listings or widescreen.

Finally, there is "Creating the Perfect Winnie the Pooh Nursery" (2:52). In this unadvertised feature, baby planners Melissa and Ellie obnoxiously share some bland design ideas and Pooh puns.
I hope this inclusion doesn't mean that Pooh is strictly for babies again moving forward.

Pitifully, the FastPlay-enhanced DVD offers only three of the five deleted scenes (losing the Eeyore and Tigger ones), the two shorts, and the nursery feature. It's really tacky for Disney to withhold basic extras from the DVD when space is clearly no concern.

The discs open with ads for Disney Studio All Access, The Muppets, Cars 2, Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition, and Tinker Bell and the Pixie Hollow Games. These are repeated by the menu's "Sneak Peeks" listing, followed by promos for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Junior, Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas Special Edition, and Secret of the Wings (formerly Tinker Bell and the Mysterious Winter Woods). Winnie the Pooh's own trailer is lamely missing.

Found on the Blu-ray but evidently inaccessible by menu are Timon and Pumbaa's Blu-ray 3D promotional short and, for whatever reason, four copies of I Am Number Four's blooper reel (that add up to a significant but inessential 5.25 GB).

The pleasing, scored main menu floats around animated book illustrations with the listings appearing on binding. Like every Disney Blu-ray I've seen, this one remembers where you left off watching the movie, but fails to support bookmarks or resume playback after turning your player off. The DVD's static additional menu screens take you to different parts of the book with different score excerpts.

The black DVD keepcase of this edition is topped by a cardboard slipcover, whose title, characters, and border is embossed and whose sticker bafflingly identifies this as "the new hit theatrical movie!" Across from the colorless DVD, which appears first, are a Disney Movie Rewards leaflet and a booklet of unrevelatory ads. Beneath them and more excitingly, there is what unfolds to be a glossy 12" x 15" poster. It's no ordinary poster, however, but everything you need for a game of "Pin the Tail on the Eeyore." His tail and six other substitutes tested in the movie are surrounded by dotted lines for you to cut out and try to attach to the donkey's rear end. It should be an inspired activity, even if the poster's creases run right through the character.

Hip-hip-Poohray! A happy ending is had for the entire Hundred Acre Wood gang: Eeyore, Owl, Christopher Robin, Rabbit, Tigger, Pooh, Kanga, Roo, and Piglet.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I wish Winnie the Pooh was a little more substantial so that people of all ages could see the wonder of this universe that I have long enjoyed. Still, it's remarkably faithful to Milne's stories and Disney's earliest adaptations.
It's also fun, sweet, fast-moving, and a refreshing break from the more adventurous and emotional animated features Disney has been putting out in recent years. While this does not delight to the same extent as the Many Adventures tales, it is more suitable a sequel than you would expect and among 2011's most appealing films.

Disney's Blu-ray delivers a knockout feature presentation and a somewhat underwhelming collection of bonus features (especially on DVD). It is odd that you'll have to buy the digital copy to get a Blu-ray case matching the preferred version of the studio's recent combo packs. At least it's only case uniformity at stake, and not substantial bonus features as on the big Disney releases a week earlier and a week later.

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Related Giveaway: Check back soon for your chance to win Winnie the Pooh's DVD + Blu-ray combo pack!

Related Reviews:
Theatrical Releases: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh The Tigger Movie Piglet's Big Movie Pooh's Heffalump Movie
Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin Winnie the Pooh: Springtime with Roo Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie
Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year Winnie the Pooh: A Valentine for You
Growing Up with Winnie the Pooh: A Great Day of Discovery Friends Forever It's Playtime with Pooh Love & Friendship
Sing a Song with Pooh Bear and Piglet Too
My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Hundred Acre Wood Haunt Super Sleuth Christmas Movie Friendly Tails Tigger & Pooh and a Musical Too
Disney Learning Adventures: Winnie the Pooh - Wonderful Word Adventure Winnie the Pooh - Shapes and Sizes

Walt Disney Collectibles, Gifts, and Figurines

2011 Animated Films: Gnomeo & Juliet Rio Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil Rango Mars Needs Moms
21st Century Disney Animated Classics: Chicken Little Meet the Robinsons Bolt The Princess and the Frog Tangled
New: Scared Shrekless Dumbo The Lion King Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory The Fox and the Hound

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Reviewed October 22, 2011.