Since he began his career in the early 1980s, veteran voice actor Jim Cummings has accumulated more than four hundred credits in his massive filmography, appearing (in audio form) in everything from “Sonic the Hedgehog” to “Taz-Mania” to “Shrek.”
But Cummings’ most famous work over the past three and half decades has been with Disney. He took over the legendary roles of Pooh and Tigger for the 1988 Saturday morning animated series “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” contributed to “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” and personified Ray the Cajun firefly 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog.”
Now Jim Cummings is back as the voices of both Winnie the Pooh and Tigger in Disney’s new live-action feature “Christopher Robin,” starring Ewan McGregor as a grown-up version of the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood’s favorite playtime pal. Today I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Mr. Cummings at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank California to talk about “Christopher Robin,” “Darkwing Duck,” and which is his personal favorite Disney role.
Jim Cummings: Who are you with, Mike?
Mike Celestino, Inside the Magic: Inside the Magic, it’s a Disney and theme park-focused news website.
Cummings: I love it. I love the magic.
ITM: Me too! And I’ve been a fan of your work my whole life.
Cummings: Oh, thank you. Bless you.
ITM: I’m very curious about the early days of doing Pooh and Tigger, because obviously the characters were established before you took over for Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell in the 80s. Can you tell me about the process of being cast in those iconic roles?
Cummings: Well, the process was pretty straightforward. Thank goodness somebody came up with the brilliant idea to bring back Pooh and Tigger and the gang from the Hundred Acre Wood, and the call went out, as it does with everything. And according to the folks at the time, they said ‘Oh my god, everybody and their congressman auditioned for these jobs.’ At the time Sterling, God rest his soul, he’s no longer with us of course, but he was kind of retired. He was quite old, quite old. So we needed to have a Pooh and, you know, interestingly, I don’t even think Disney Character Voices was established yet.
To my mind, the first thing you had to do was capture the sound, so that if Pooh sneezed, or did anything, he burped, or fill in the blank, fill in the bodily function, it had to sound like him. If he yawned, if he snored, it had to sound like Pooh. And same with Tigger, so that was kind of like Job One. At that point, once you get the sound of the character voice down, then you’re hopefully a decent actor, and I was acting like I was a decent actor, so I think I fooled them.
And of course the same with Tigger– not so much at the beginning, because Paul was still working. It was interesting because, for the first year or so when we were doing ‘The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,’ he would go back and forth to Africa, to cure hunger. A horrible famine was sweeping over Africa, and he had the great idea to have these little mudskippers that live in the banks of the Mississippi and take those over there. It wasn’t fine cuisine, but [he] raised them [at] fish hatcheries, literally curing hunger. Knucklehead Smith, Tigger, [inventing the] artificial heart, and curing hunger. It’s an obvious career path.
So I would be Tigger while he was gone, and then X amount of years later he had a terrible stroke, God bless him. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I want you to take care of my little buddy for me.’ I think I made it to the car before I cried.
ITM: It must have been nice to have his blessing.
Cummings: Yeah. And here we are, all these years later.
ITM: And now we’ve got ‘Christopher Robin.’ How do you feel the tone of this movie compares to Pooh projects from the past?
Cummings: You know, you’re still in the Hundred Acre Wood. I mean, I’m in the audience, pure and simple. That’s it. The fact that I’m in [the movie] is a sidebar, because once I sit down in [the theater] and I’ve got the popcorn, I’m in the audience. You get to see the Hundred Acre Wood, and it’s got that sort of ‘Little Rascals’ cobbled-together look to it. It’s just so enchanting. I just want to go there and hang out, and hop in the stream. I think it’s magical, because it’s everything you’re looking for. ‘Oh, there’s Pooh’s house! Oh, look at Rabbit’s place!’ And they’re in the log, and they hide, and it’s just so magical.
It’s everything that you loved about the books and you loved about the cartoons and the animation, and now it’s all brought to life. Ewan is amazing, Hayley [Atwell] is amazing. It’s just a blessing. Bring your tissues, because it’s very nostalgic.
ITM: Without giving too much away, how would you describe Pooh’s journey in this movie?
Cummings: He defeats the Zombie Nazis from Mars.
Cummings: Oh, I shouldn’t have– I gave it all away now. Dang it. No, it’s great. He’s like the center of the storm, you know. The hurricane could be going on around him and he doesn’t notice because he’s in the eye of the storm. He’s got that zen-like approach, like [director] Marc Forster says, ‘the Tao of Pooh is very revealing.’ It’s just a simple approach to life. One of my favorite lines is, ‘People say nothing is impossible, but I do it every day.’ So, you know, just follow Pooh.
ITM: You mentioned Ewan McGregor, and obviously you were in the voice-over booth during production, but did you have any chance to interact with him?
Cummings: Well, yes and no. Only on tape. Not yet, I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be great, he’s really a great, great guy [and] a great actor. And I thought that about the little guy [Neel Sethi as Mowgli] in ‘Jungle Book’ too; [it] was all green-screen. Ewan [would] stand up there with clay-like, grayish puppets, and he was just ‘Boom!’, right there. I think everybody’s gonna love it.
ITM: Can you tell me a little bit more about working with Marc Forster?
Cummings: Marc’s great: he’s got a real gentle wisdom about him, and he’s got that inner serenity that kind of radiates outward. He pulls you along with it, and he cajoles. He’s got a vision, which is great– when you’re working with somebody that knows what they want. It wasn’t going to be bombastic. We weren’t going to be hitting you over the head with anything, but these little truisms and these little feelings and emotions, he evokes them so effortlessly. He’s quite a maestro. People are going to be talking about this movie forever. I will be.
ITM: Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the characters have a somewhat different look in this movie than Disney fans are used to. Does that difference affect your approach to the voices at all?
Cummings: No, it has to be the same. This Pooh is a little less boisterous, but Tigger makes up for it, so it’s okay. [laughs] But the approach has got to be same because it’s got to [have] that consistency that we all want. It’s got to still [be] Pooh.
ITM: As an actor, what do you hope audiences take out of ‘Christopher Robin’?
Cummings: I hope they just go there and have a good time and forget all the… stuff. If you have some negative stuff in your world, leave it out there, come on into the Hundred Acre Wood, have a smackerel of honey and a bounce or two. It’s gonna be all right.
ITM: While I’m here with you, I have to ask about Darkwing Duck.
Cummings: Oh… [in Darkwing Duck voice] ‘And rightly so, citizen! Keep up the good work! Excellent, Launchpad! Well done. Bring around the Ratcatcher.’
ITM: [laughs] Thank you so much, that’s amazing.
Cummings: Yeah, who knows what Darkwing’s gonna do?
ITM: You had the opportunity to revive Darkwing very briefly on the new ‘DuckTales.’ Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Cummings: It was a blast, you know? It was just in and out, though, because it turns out that Darkwing, and rightly so, [is] Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s favorite superhero. So of course they would have to be watching a little Darkwing on television. And then they interweave it into the plot, and it’s ‘Daring Duck of Mystery. But when there’s trouble, you call D.W.!’ But you knew that. [laughs]
ITM: I did know that. [laughs] But in the original cartoon Darkwing and Launchpad were friends with each other. Launchpad was kind of the sidekick. And now Launchpad is a fan of Darkwing Duck as a TV show. That seemed kind of mind-bending to me.
Cummings: Yeah, it’s an odd dynamic. It’s art imitating art, imitating life that was artful, being imitated. I’m pretty sure that was an imitation of what it was. I could be wrong.
ITM: [laughs] Right. So besides Winnie the Pooh and Darkwing Duck, what other Disney roles of yours do you find that fans are most enthusiastic about?
Cummings: Well, Tigger. That’s for sure. I always put Pooh and Tigger in their own category. They’re on the top shelf. They’re evergreens, they’re not fads, you know? They’re not like Pogs or friendship bracelets, you know what I mean? They’re going to be there. And then gosh, I guess Darkwing is too. Boy, he sure is popular.
But personally, one of my all-time favorites is Ray from ‘Princess and the Frog.’ People are really touched by him, and I am too. Like I said, he’s one of my favorites. My daughter Gracie looked exactly like Princess Tiana when she was four, and she was four at the same time [that] Pricess Tiana was four in the movie, when it came out. And you couldn’t have told her she wasn’t Princess Tiana.
Having it based in my favorite city in the world, New Orleans, and I was a deckhand on a riverboat, and I said ‘Oh God, if I don’t get in this one I’ll shoot myself. I gotta get this role. [I’ll be] pissed off six months from now when Harry Connick Jr. is sitting there singing the songs I should’ve sung.’ I don’t think it would’ve been the same with Harry in there, because I bugged Randy Newman so much that he wrote ‘Going Down the Bayou’ [‘Gonna Take You There’]. I said ‘Come on, man.’ He said ‘We already sang the love song.’ I said ‘I know, but he’s a Cajun. We gotta get some zydeco in there.’ So we got that in.
ITM: ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and 2011’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ were two of the final hand-drawn Disney animated movies. As a voice-over actor, how do you feel about the transition to CGI animation?
Cummings: You know, I love this stuff. I love hand-drawn animation. Hand-made is hand-made, and nothing looks like that. I mean, I like them both. I love Pixar. What’s not to like? You gotta love ‘The Incredibles,’ how can you not? And then ‘Christopher Robin’ [is partly animated by] the same folks who did ‘Jungle Book.’ It might as well be magic, you know? Like [in] ‘The Life of Pi’, I was scared to death of that tiger. I’ll buy it, you know? Forty-foot-tall King Louie was a bit much. [in Christopher Walken voice] Especially Christopher Walken, you know?
But I love it. Anything that exercises the imagination, it’s a beautiful thing.
Disney’s “Christopher Robin” will be released into theaters nationwide on Friday, August 3.