50. Winnie the Pooh
“Winnie the Pooh” is even more of a throw-back then Disney’s last few animated features. In a world of bright, chaotic CGI animation that often features adult humor, cartoonish violence, or attempts at serious themes, this film is quiet, playful, and unabashedly sweet. Compared to this year’s “Cars 2,” a movie featuring broad humor, a world spanning plot, and a disconcerting amount of serious spy violence, it’s like another world. The central conflict here involves a slapstick quest to capture an imaginary monster or attempts to replace a sad donkey’s missing tail. Our protagonist has no discernible character arc beyond his desire to eat lots and lots of honey. (Well, okay, Pooh does learn a little about friendship along the way, but, mostly… Honey.)
The movie carries on a visual motif from the original “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” in that the whole movie takes place in a book. But it takes the interaction further. The characters often interact with the words around, bringing the very layout of the page into the plot. As in the older film, a narrator not only describes the scenarios, but often chats with the characters, goading them on when they don’t follow the story. (John Cleese steps in for the long-gone Sebastian Cabot.)
As with the last few animated features, “Winnie the Pooh” is a musical. The characters often sing-song little cheering ditties while, on the soundtrack, indie-movie-starlet and Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl-for-life, Zooey Deschanel, sings sweet little acoustic melodies. During an extended day-dream sequence, Pooh imagines himself in a world full of honey, set to Zooey’s whimsical soundtrack. Deschanel also provides the ending credits music, a catchy number called “So Long,” that perfectly sums up the film’s themes of friendship and play.
The movie’s pace is incredibly laid-back, intentionally calling to mind a little boy playing with his toys on a lazy Sunday afternoon. As I said earlier, there’s not much here in way of story. The movie doesn’t even really follow the three-act structure, breaking the first rule in the screenwriter’s book. (Pretty daring for a kid’s flick.) For around the first half-hour, the movie focuses on a contest to replace Eeyore’s misplaced tail. Though the gang does their best to cook up creative replacement, nothing quite satisfies Eeyore and nobody gets the prize, a giant pot of honey. However, for the second half, the movie shifts focus. Christopher Robin disappears, leaves a note, which the goofy animals misinterpreted as a ransom letter from an imaginary monster called the “Backson.”
This leads to the film’s two highlight sequences. The first is a colorful musical number, done in the style of chalkboard illustrations, describing just what kind of monster a Backson is. (He puts holes in your socks.) A trap is set for the creature but, naturally, our heroes wind up in the trap instead and have to rely on little Piglet to get them out, leading to some of the biggest laughs in the film. Somewhere in the middle of this, Eeyore and Tigger have a boxing match, somebody dresses up as the monster and, well… You can probably see where this is going.
The film is barely over an hour long and its episodic nature extends past the main feature. The movie opens with a short called “The Ballad of Nessie.” It’s a sweet little fable designed to teach kids that it’s okay to cry and features the cutest, most charming rendition of the Loch Ness Monster that I’ve seen recently. Cute little Nessie would make a proud addition to any collection of Disney memorabilia. “The Ballad of Nessie” is a fantastic little short and almost outshines the main feature.
“Winnie the Pooh” isn’t out to redefine the medium, but, it is daring in its own quiet ways. It’s got no celebrity voices (unless Craig Ferguson counts. And he’d be the first to say he doesn’t.), instead filling its character’s mouths with veteran voice actors. (Including Jim Cummings, who has now voiced Pooh longer then Sterling Holloway ever did.) When every week brings around star-studded CGI talking animal movie, a short little cartoon about a boy, his bear, and the adventures they have, seems more out-of-place then ever. And, if the theater I saw the film in is any indication, it might be too calm for most modern kids. The parents laughed and smiled while the little ones squirmed.
It makes me sad to think there’s no room in today’s kids marketplace for the simple pleasures of “Winnie the Pooh.” The fact that Disney opened this opposite the biggest film of the summer, in the middle of a crowded blockbuster season, doesn’t make me think they had much confidence in it. If nothing else, “Winnie the Pooh” will find it’s home on video, where it will provide a serene escape for both parents and kids. [Grade: B]