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Directors: Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall
Release Date: April 15, 2011
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

In 1961 Walt Disney obtained the film rights to A.A. Milne’s famous books, and over the years made five short specials about the character (1966-1983), of which the second (Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, 1968) and third (Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, 1974) have become absolute classics. In 1977 the first three were stitched together into the feature film ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’, and its in this form they’re available on home media today.

Now, one can lament the fact that many children will know Winnie the Pooh better by its Disney version than by E.H. Shepard’s original irreplaceable illustrations, but within animation history these specials are highlights of inventive story-telling and wonderful character animation. A particular delight are the playful interactions of the characters with the pages of the book they appear in. Moreover, Disney retained the contrast between the naive stuffed animals and the pompous forest animals, Rabbit and Owl, who only think they’re wiser than their plush counterparts.

Unfortunately, following these classic specials, Disney took more and more liberties with the Pooh franchise, resulting in television series, direct to video movies, and even video games. Also, the three feature films made by the Disneytoon Studio division, ‘The Tigger Movie’ (2000), ‘Piglet’s Big Movie’ (2003) and ‘Pooh’s Heffalump Movie’ (2005) seemed to drift away more and more from the source material than either desired or necessary.

In this light one cannot but be weary before approaching the 2011 film, called ‘Winnie the Pooh’ in surprisingly plain fashion. However, the film deviates significantly from the trends set in the previous decade: first, it was made by the Walt Disney Animation Studios itself, being Disney’s last hand drawn animated feature to date, and the quality of animation simply is undeniable. Especially Andreas Deja’s animation of Tigger is fantastic. Moreover, there’s only a little computer animation, most notably the swarm of bees and some flowing honey. Second, the film returns to the original source material, mixing two original chapters together: ‘Eeyore loses a Tail’ from Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and ‘The Search for Small’ from ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ (1928).

The film is surprisingly concise, only lasting 51 minutes, and not dragging one second of it. On the contrary, I rank ‘Winnie the Pooh’ as one of the best told and most entertaining of all 2010s animation films. The film successfully revives the playful spirit of the original specials, greatly helped by using John Cleese as its narrator. There’s plenty of humor, mostly deeply rooted in the interplay between the contrasting characters. For example, at one point Owl boasts he has “achieved completion of [his] autobiographical treatise”, prompting Winnie the Pooh to reply “Oh. Was it painful?”. In another sequence there’s a great confusion when the words ‘not’ and ‘knot’ are mixed together.

Two of the original songs are reused, the ones introducing Winnie the Pooh himself, and Tigger’s song. Five original songs are added, penned by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. These are functional, pleasant and short enough to please even a musical aversion-bearer like me. Even better, the Backson song is accompanied by a wonderful fantasy sequence emulating the 1950s cartoon modern style. The ‘Everything is Honey’ song is illustrated with surreal images of honey pots in the forms of e.g. crabs, jellyfish and whales.

The voice cast, too, is excellent. As the voice of Pooh Jim Cummings does an excellent Sterling Holloway imitation, Bud Luckey sounds delightfully gloomy as Eeyore, while Craig Ferguson and Tom Kenny make their characters Owl and Rabbit perfectly pompous and self-important.

Even the end titles are a delight. First, the film’s adventures are retold using stills of the live action puppets in Christopher Robin’s room, then the rest of the titles are accompanied by several antics of the characters, much in the vein of the titles of ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003). And there’s a surprise at the very end of them, so keep watching!

In all, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is a wonderful surprise, a true gem of a film, no doubt delighting children and adults alike. Unfortunately, it was to be the Disney studio’s last traditionally animated feature. It’s unbelievably sad that the high art of drawn animation was abandoned even by the studio that had elevated the technique to inconceivable heights in the first place. I surely hope Disney will return to this art form one day.

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