Everything is familiar about Disney’s newest animated feature film, “Winnie the Pooh,” which is exactly what makes it work. Unlike the many modern “twists” on classic tales Hollywood has so often created in recent years, the big screen reunion of Pooh bear, Tigger, Eeyore, and the whole gang from the Hundred Acre Wood just feels right. While updated with crisp high-definition visuals and stylized music, “Winnie the Pooh” succeeds at making every viewer feel warm and cuddly.
The story told in the new “Winnie the Pooh” is not new, but its twist on them is. Eeyore has been losing his tail for decades, since chapter four of the first publication of Pooh creator A.A. Milne’s original “Winnie the Pooh” in 1926. The film elaborates on this familiar tail tale, combined with a highly embellished and completely amusing version of chapter five of “The House at Pooh Corner,” in which a misread note leads the characters on a mission to save boy friend Christopher Robin from the mysterious, and quite possibly ferocious, “Backson” creature.
This telling of a pair of Pooh stories relies heavily on the conceit that the narrator, a chipper John Cleese, and all characters clearly know that they’re all part of a story. As such, words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages serve as props on screen for Tigger to bounce on or Eeyore to stumble over. And it is this willingness to let the simple stories just be stories, and nothing more, that enables “Winnie the Pooh” to succeed in being so, well, simple.
Children get big laughs out of the physical comedy present throughout the film, with its short 69-minute runtime easily able to hold even the youngest viewers’ attention. Adults watching this film can reminisce on their own memories of Rabbit, Owl, and Piglet, evoked by the movie’s hand-sketched visual style. While offered in HD clarity with bright colors that pop off the screen, particularly the gold of honey and the red of the B’loon, “Winnie the Pooh” makes no apologies for showcasing roughly sketched character outlines and watercolor backgrounds. This time around, Disney’s artists used virtual ink and paint on computers to bring Pooh’s world to life, but all the while successfully recreated the feeling of paper drawings. Only one sequence filled with glowing, luxurious honey ever feels like it was animated digitally. The rest appears completely organic.
The film’s voice acting builds upon characterizations of the past, with each actor offering a new twist on familiar voices. Jim Cummings perfectly voices the title character as well as Tigger without deviating from the friendly tones audiences are used to. He has, after all, been voicing both for years. But Bud Luckey’s Eeyore offers a bit more texture than previous actor Peter Cullen, who has voiced the character for Disney since 1989. The rest of the cast, a combination of first-timers and regulars to Pooh, offers satisfying support with no recognizably “famous” voices ever drawing viewers out of the viewing experience.
If anything feels totally new about this version of “Winnie the Pooh,” it’s the soundtrack. Singer and actress Zooey Deschanel is given a chance to lend her smokey and somewhat jazzy vocals to several prominent songs throughout the film, including its famous theme song, originally penned by Disney Legends and Oscar winners Richard and Robert Sherman. Deschanel’s songs are peppy, but not in a generic children’s song way. The songs don’t always feel connected with the scene they’re featured in, but each is enjoyable in its own right. The voice cast also lends a hand in a few tunes that move the story along, particularly “The Backson Song,” which is featured in an artfully animated and particularly memorable sequence.
But even with a short runtime, catchy songs, and colorful characters, “Winnie the Pooh” at times comes off as more Eeyore than Tigger. That is, the film hits a few slow patches that while lasting only a couple minutes seem to drag the overall pace down. Fortunately, the majority of the film features enough cleverly written dialogue and curious situations to keep it entertaining.
A trip to the movie theater to see this 69-minute film costs just as much as seeing a 169 minute film. As such, Disney adds value to each ticket by preceding each showing of “Winnie the Pooh” with a new short film called “The Ballad of Nessie.” This short is perfectly paired with Pooh, stylized to look like Disney animation of old, telling an origin tale of the Loch Ness monster. It’s a cute short that offers a few laughs in advance of the main feature.
While Disney’s widely-touted return to hand-drawn 2D animation in 2009, “The Princess and the Frog,” was a success in many ways, it didn’t draw the box office numbers that were hoped for to truly revive the medium. Likewise, despite the fact that “Winnie the Pooh” is a traditionally-animated classic tale of friendship with beloved characters, it’s unlikely that it will ignite the spark necessary to draw the mainstream audience that Pixar’s many successful and groundbreaking films have regularly brought in. This new “Winnie the Pooh,” by design, feels like an old film. And as such it’s sure to delight fans of the series and characters and even establish some new younger fans, but it doesn’t feature the modern day flash that draws big crowds.
From the moment the storybook opens at the beginning to the last glimpse of the characters after the credits are done rolling, audiences will find nothing to dislike, but little to be surprised about either. Pooh often describes himself as a “bear of very little brain” striving to enjoy life’s simple pleasures each day. “Winnie the Pooh” is just such a simple pleasure, a film that’s not groundbreaking, but still entirely enjoyable.