Winnie the Pooh

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

18 January

AA Milne born, 1882

On this day in 1882, Alan Alexander Milne was born in Hampstead, London, UK.

The son of a Scottish teacher, he was educated at his father’s small public school in Kilburn, London, where one of his teachers was HG Wells. After that he attended Westminster, one of the country’s leading private schools, before going to Cambridge University on a mathematics scholarship. While there he was noticed by the humorous Punch magazine, to which he started contributing. After Cambridge he got a job at Punch and became a prolific writer, producing 18 plays and three novels.

He fought in the First World War, and after it, in 1920, his son, Christopher Robin, was born. In 1924 he published When We Were Very Young, a collection of children’s poems illustrated by Punch’s EH Shepard, and started on the series of short stories that would become the Winnie the Pooh books.

Though he also wrote at least four screenplays in the 1920s, it was the books he wrote for his son that have endured. Named Winnie the Pooh after a Canadian black bear named Winnie (shortened from Winnipeg) a military mascot left to London Zoo after the First World War was over, the visual inspiration for the bear in the books actually came from illustrator EH Shepard’s son’s teddy bear, named Growler.

Most of the rest of the animals – Kanga, Tigger, Roo and Piglet – were modelled on Christopher Robin’s own stuffed animals (which still exist). A few others (Owl, Rabbit) were dreamt up by Milne himself. Pooh first appeared by name in a short story called The Wrong Sort of Bees, in the London Evening News, on Christmas Eve 1925.

A versatile writer who enjoyed turning his hand to stage work, journalism, screenplays, detective stories, AA Milne was slightly put out by the success of his children’s books (Winnie the Pooh, 1926; The House at Pooh Corner, 1928; Now We Are Six, 1927).

In later life Milne found he could barely get any interest at all in any work he wrote unless it was aimed at children. In 2011 Forbes magazine ranked Winnie the Pooh the second most valuable character in terms of merchandising – second only to Mickey Mouse. And gaining.

Winnie the Pooh (2011, dir: Stephen J Anderson, Don Hall)

Not the first Pooh animated feature by a long stretch, this Winnie the Pooh is distinctive because it’s the first film made by Disney since they bought out all the other rights holders to Winnie the Pooh in 2001, for $350m.

Hence, possibly, the simple “it all starts here” title.

And in spite of misgivings by Anglophiles, Milne maniacs and Pooh lovers, it’s a sweet and short adventure, much as Milne might have liked.

A conflation of several Pooh stories, it majors on the loss of Eeyore’s tail and the contest held by his friends to find him a new one. This choice must also warrant a tick from the traditionalists, because if there’s anything that can be guaranteed to dampen the helium optimism of Disney, it’s a touch of Eeyore miserablism.

Talking of voices, Jim Cummings is handling Pooh, as he has done for years, and if he’s a touch midwestern for some tastes, he’s such a likeable dimwitted Pooh, so wheezy and galumphing, that it’s doubtful any except the most autistic conservative will object.

The same holds true for the animation – yes, it shades just a touch towards Disney but it is only a touch. The opposite is true of the songs – some of them might make you pine for the uppity-tuppity-tup of Disney legends the Sherman brothers, who wrote only the theme song.

These are only niggles though, because on the whole this is a charming and intelligent tale, a reminder that Disney can still produce simple, excellent animation with a voice cast chosen for what they do, rather than their famous name, exceptions John Cleese (the narrator) and Craig Ferguson (Owl), taking their cues admirably from their more professional, less well known fellow voice artists.

With some clever interplay between the film and the book Cleese is meant to be reading from, to reassure parents who worry if their child is going to pick up the book habit, this film bounces along with a Tiggerish energy and does not outstay its welcome. If you’re five, externally or internally, it’ll probably hit the spot.

Why Watch?

  • Bright, fun, kiddie-centric yet intelligent
  • Lots of awards recognition from film critics societies
  • The song So Long is written and performed by Zooey Deschanel
  • Hand animated – rare these days

Winnie the Pooh – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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