Winnie the PoohReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/16/11 11:14:36
The last few years have seen an enormous glut of family-oriented films but the trouble with a lot of them, even the good ones, is that in their efforts to appeal to viewers of all ages, they have a tendency to overlook the youngest members of the potential audience pool by filling them with jokes and cultural references that they most likely won't understand, storylines too convoluted for them to fully grasp and action sequences too intense for them to handle. Hell, even something as seemingly innocuous as "Cars 2" contains a surprisingly high amount of gunfire, especially for a product from the normally benign Pixar assembly line. The good thing about "Winnie the Pooh," the latest screen incarnation from Walt Disney Studios of the misadventures of A.A. Milne's beloved honey-obsessed bear, is that it is a film perfectly scaled for youngsters--it is gentle, good-natured and cheerfully whimsical without trying to jolt viewers with elaborate action set-pieces, noisy slapstick humor or an overbearing soundtrack--and for those who have never seen a movie in a theater before, it will serve as a perfect introduction to that most wonderful of all art forms. The really good thing about "Winnie the Pooh" is that older viewers, especially those who were themselves raised on Milne's stories and the previous film versions produced by Disney, are likely to enjoy it just as much, if not more so, than their younger charges for it is an absolute delight from start to finish that will have them feeling the same kind of warm and friendly glow normally associated with a yummy pot of hunny.The movie opens on a typically lovely morning in the Hundred Acre Wood as Pooh wakes up from a wonderful dream with a hankering to fill his belly with his beloved honey. Alas, his stores of the substance are at an all-time low and so he sets off to see if any of his friends have a pot or two to spare. Along the way, he runs into the always-mopey Eeyore and discovers that his friend actually has a legitimate reason for being depressed--his tail has mysteriously vanished into thin air. In the hopes of cheering Eeyore up, Pooh and the other denizens of the Wood--human friend Christopher Robin and fellow animals Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Owl and the inimitable Tigger--hold a contest to find a suitable replacement with the first prize being a pot of honey. A little later on, the assistance of Christopher Robin is required but when Pooh goes to retrieve him, all he finds is a note that leads the gang to conclude that their friend has been snatched by a fearsome monster known as the "backson." Determined to rescue Christopher, the others set off to set traps for the backson but inevitably wind up accidentally tripping themselves up. Fear not--in news that will probably surprise very few of you, Pooh manages to save the day with the help of the guiding hand of a few well-placed words and even learns a few simple and sound lessons about the importance of friendship in the process.
When I first got wind that Disney was embarking on a new film project featuring Winnie the Pooh, i must admit to greeting the news with a certain sense of apprehension. Although the three initial featurettes that they produced with the character--"Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" (1966), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day" (1968) and "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too"(1974), later combined into the ersatz 1977 feature "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh"--were delightful works that captured the gentle spirit of both Milne's words and E.H. Shepard's illustrations but later attempts by the studio exploit the property on the big and small screens were oftentimes garish works that messed with the established style and tone in ways that were presumably done to attract kids looking for something edgier in their entertainment but which wound up appalling longtime fans. (I recall exploding into a furious and decidedly foul-mouthed tirade after a screening of the inexcusable "Piglet's Big Movie"--in hindsight, I probably should have waited until all the kids had cleared the theater first.) Happily, the filmmakers have resisted the urge to tart things up because their film is a definite throwback to both the earlier films and the original stories. Visually, it utilizes the hand-drawn animation style that used to be the standard and serves as a reminder to those who have grown used to computer animation just how warm and lovely the old way can be when done with proper care. (Thankfully, Disney chose not to produce this film in 3D, a move that would have utterly clashed with the tone of the story and dulled the images to boot.)
From a dramatic standpoint, nothing much really happens but that isn't too much of a problem here because the Pooh tales were rarely driven by the mechanics of the plot--they were always more dedicated to bringing the characters, all of whom represented different facets of recognizable childhood behavior, together and letting themselves bounce off of each other, literally in the case of the rambunctious Tigger. While the stories are slight, they are easy enough for even the youngest viewers to more or less follow along with but at the same time, they have not been dumbed down for them either--the screenplay is literate and if a word comes up that is perhaps a little too confusing, it is kind enough to offer the occasional explanation as well. Instead, the film is content to ramble along on its own merry way, occasionally nudged gently by the narration by John Cleese and some lilting songs performed by Zooey Deschanel, while allowing the characters to demonstrate their charming idiosyncrasies. Take Pooh, for example. Because he is often driven by his hunger for honey and is sometimes clumsy, some might have felt the temptation to make him into a big, wacky klutz as a way of scoring big laughs. Instead, Pooh is handled in exactly the way that he should be--he comes across as a nice little child who loves his friends and family and will do anything in order to help them but sometimes finds himself distracted by other things, such as honey or a red balloon floating through the air. This is behavior that both kids and adults alike can readily understand and recognize and that is why he has remained so popular for so long. The film clearly recognizes that and as a result, it winds up containing a deeper and more significant emotional core than most other recent movies, animated or not, that have come along.Short and sweet (it clocks in at a mere 69 minutes, with several of them dedicated to a funny and touching pre-film cartoon about the legendary Loch Ness and its most famous inhabitant that is not to be missed), "Winnie the Pooh" doesn't try to blow viewers out of the back wall of the theater and that is only one of its delights. It is an utterly beguiling work that will charm older and younger viewers alike and which also stands as a quiet but firm rebuke to overpriced, under-imagined junk like "Zookeeper." The only fly in the honey is the inexplicable decision by Disney to release it on the exact same weekend as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," another film targeting the exact same audience and with just a tad more hype behind it. (This is exceptionally unfortunate if you try to see "Winnie the Pooh" in a multiplex where the Potter film is playing right next door and its booming soundtrack winds up leaking through the thin walls that makes it sound as if the Hundred Acre Wood is being carpet-bombed.) As good as that film is, and it is very good, it is a dark and sometimes brooding experience that could well be far too intense for younger and more sensitive viewers. "Winnie the Pooh," on the other hand, can be readily appreciated by viewers of all ages and contains nary a single drop of nightmare fuel (depending on your opinion of Zooey Deschanel's musical skills, of course). I don't understand the reasoning behind the decision to release it opposite "Deathly Hallows" but it does offer help for families containing both older kids and younger ones who might be terrified by the stuff it contains--the older ones can go see Potter while the younger ones can go and see Pooh. That way, everyone is happy and for once, the younger kids will wind up getting the better end of the deal.
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