Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stuffed with Fluff: WINNIE THE POOH

I don’t see how any lover of animation, and certainly any fan of Winnie the Pooh, could be disappointed in Winnie the Pooh, a lovingly hand-drawn animated feature that hews closely to the original tone and structure of the A.A. Milne picture books as filtered through the indelible visual design of the 1960’s Disney shorts based on them and compiled in the altogether wonderful 1977 feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This new film collects the familiar characters in their familiar setting and allows them to behave in predictably mild and sweet ways. Perhaps the strangest and most notable thing about this feature, especially now in 2011, is how simple and unconcerned with posturing it is.

Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall (along with their small army of writers and animators) are decidedly uninterested in straining for artificial hipness. There is ease and comfortability with which the production slips into the simple, charming rhythms of a life with Pooh bear in the Hundred Acre Wood. Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) just wants his honey – his tummy, after all, is awfully grumbly – and the crux of the film is finding ways to thwart that desire, to create situations that will pull the character into choices between finding honey and helping others. Sometimes, he will fail, and succumb to the visions of honey pots dancing in his head like a Busby Berkeley number, but eventually Pooh learns to put others first. At least until his tummy starts grumbling again.

Between Pooh and his honey is a collection of familiar characters with various immediate goals. The depressive donkey named Eeyore (Bud Luckey) loses his tail. The bouncy, flouncy Tigger (Jim Cummings, again) thinks he just might need a sidekick. Owl (Craig Ferguson, an unexpected choice) is writing his memoirs. Rabbit (Tom Kenny) is tending his garden. Kanga  (Kristen Anderson-Lopez) is knitting a scarf for Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall). Piglet (Travis Oates) is – oh, d-d-d-dear! – so nervous. These are characters that are cheerfully stationary in their personalities, which have a kind of warmhearted purity of spirit in their sweet simplicity. It’s nice to see them again because we know they will fall into predictable patterns. The voice work, an eclectic mix to be sure, is comforting in its way of seeming to fit the memory of what they sounded like in the past. There are differences in some of the interpretations but by and large they fit. After all, the voices are a just as predictable part of the characters as their personalities

But that’s not to say the film itself is overly predictable. Simplicity is the key here, not a kind of watery sameness or dumb homogenized energy, but a simple reverence for childhood and a true respect for a very young target audience. Their surrogate, the imaginative little British boy Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), serves as a bridge between the “real world” and the world of these ambulatory animated stuffed animals. He is never explicitly shown to be the creator of this gentle fantasy. He’s a participant and, when absent, a recipient of reverence and respect from these creatures. There’s a playful storybook atmosphere that harkens back to Disney’s earlier efforts of adaptation.

Narrator John Cleese will break into banter with the imaginary characters, sometimes even shaking the book or finding his patience tried when the drawings collide or otherwise interact with the text on the page. There’s a love of reading, of wordplay, present in the film that helps to create an atmosphere of sweet sophistication. It may seem all a bit simple and distant to a jaded adult audience, but for kids I would imagine that the film has a wonderful sense of being pitched at exactly the right level, with just enough to engage the very young precisely where they are and even occasionally thrillingly just enough beyond where they are. It’s a refreshingly small feature, topping out at just over an hour, padded to feature length with a delightful post-credits scene, a syrupy pre-feature short, and sweet songs sung by Zooey Deschanel. Its modest scale makes it entirely perfect for what it is, a grand first theatrical experience for a small child while also serving as a small dose of nostalgia for those who love and cherish the everlasting reliability that these characters will remain exactly who they are for now and forever.

No comments:

Post a Comment