Friday, 15 April 2011
'Winnie the Pooh' review:
"Promise me you'll never forget me because if I thought you would I'd never leave", says the young Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh in one of A.A Milne's original short children's stories about that stuffed bear of little brain. Milne's wit endures, but it is probably Disney who have done to the most to ensure the endearing little chap is never forgotten, along with his friends Eeyore, Rabbit, Piglet, Owl and Tigger.
Three Wolfgang Reitherman directed short films, made by the studio in the mid-sixties, were turned into the celebrated feature 'The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh' in 1977 and Disney haven't stopped milking the "franchise" for all it's worth since - turning Milne's creations into a brand famous around the world among people of all ages. As well as piles of every kind of merchandise, the years since have seen dozens of small-screen series and even a handful of cheaply produced theatrical releases courtesy of the television unit.
Yet the latest commercial outlet for the series is a refreshing return to those early shorts and a loving, respectful homage to everything that is joyful about Milne's characters. Not to mention a faithful successor to the original film, with an opening tracking shot through Christopher Robin's live-action bedroom and with suitably retro styling on the credits. The new film, simply entitled 'Winnie the Pooh', is no half-hearted knock-off. Instead it's a proper part of the Disney animation canon - Disney Animation Studios 51st feature - and boasts some of the best hand-drawn animation talent the company has ever produced, with Renaissance-era veterans like Andreas Deja and Mark Henn reliably providing the nuanced and detailed character work demanded by the source material.
It may seem at odds with the folksy, laid back charm of this resolutely "old-school" piece to talk about the animation work in these terms, but a lot of work went into the film's apparent simplicity. Moments of good natured humour are emphasised by some of the finest character animation in memory, with subtle sighs and changes in facial expression being the principal joy here. The story is slight and the running time relatively short (though only a minute shorter than its 1977 predecessor), but that's what you want from Pooh. The film is a whimsical breath of fresh air that never comes close to outstaying its welcome.
With many of the original voice actors no longer with us, the characters have new voices, though they feel familiar as the new actors pay respectful tribute to those who came before. Pooh is hilarious as voiced by Jim Cummings (also the voice of Tigger), who captures the right level of sweet simplicity, with an edge of impatience for the bear. Scottish comic Craig Ferguson somehow manages to channel the spirit of Hal Smith as the pompous owl and John Cleese even sounds a little like the original film's narrator Sebastian Cabot (best known as the voice of Bagheera in 'The Jungle Book'). Only Tom Kenny as Rabbit is a little less effective than his ancestor, with his voice lacking the impotent rage of Junius Matthews.
There are several songs along the way, which are simple, forgettable and inoffensive and probably represent the film's weakest suit - especially when compared with ditties like "Rumbly in My Tumbly" and "Up, Down Touch the Ground" from the original. But Zooey Deschanel's rendition of the original theme song is suitably winsome and the tunes that misfire are still endearing in an ineffectual, childish way that is so very Winnie the Pooh. In any case, they are always accompanied with imaginatively animated sequences and full of innocent humorous phrases which take the curse off any faltering melody.
As with the 1977 classic, 'Winnie the Pooh' is at its heart a combination of three very simple short stories: a search for Eeyore's missing tail, Pooh's search for honey and the gangs' quest to rescue Christopher Robin from the dreaded (and imaginary) "Backson". But whereas the original feature was divided into three brief episodes, this new film more ambitiously entwines them into one feature-length narrative. Yet despite a slightly more plot-driven approach, the film is still content to meander at a leisurely pace towards its conclusion. Like a sunny stroll through the Hundred Acre Wood, it's much more about the journey than the destination and the amount of fun you have will very much depend on your pre-existing level of fondness for these characters.
As you might expect from a gentle children's tale, this film is very much aimed at youngsters - a fact amplified by the presence of two excessively toddler-friendly shorts beforehand. There are no nods to the adults or in-jokes at all. But it's nice to find a modern animation totally free of any post-modern winking and there is fun to be had here for adults so long as they are prepared to indulge their innermost child. As the credits rolled I found myself identifying with the sentiment of this bittersweet passage from Milne's The House at Pooh Corner: "And by and by Christopher Robin came to an end of things, and he was silent, and he sat there, looking out over the world, just wishing it wouldn't stop."
With the knowledge of a job well done, maybe Disney should allow these characters to get some rest for a while, safe from some of the more crass exploitations of recent decades. They needn't remind us of their charms quite so incessantly now, because with 'Winnie the Pooh' they've ensured that our old friends, as we remember them, are not soon forgotten - all with a wistful poetry and fondness for childlike wordplay that would make A.A Milne himself proud.
'Winnie the Pooh' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and is on wide release across the UK from today.