When I saw that Disney would be releasing a new Winnie the Pooh movie on the weekend when the Harry Potter finale was also hitting theaters, I thought the company's executives must be nuts.
If you are going to go up against the P-Man, don't do it with a kids' movie. That would mean certain box-office death, right?
Then I saw the new (and quite good) Harry Potter—and the umpteen adults and children getting vaporized in it. It isn't a kids' movie at all.
As it turns out, the new Winnie the Pooh isn't really a kids' movie either. Oh, sure, parents will probably take their kids, hoping A.A. Milne's stuffed bear will enchant the little dumplings in the same way they were enchanted decades ago. Unfortunately, I'm thinking the kids will do a lot of fidgeting while their parents sport ear-to-ear grins as their hearts swell with nostalgic delight.
To prepare for the new and beautifully hand-drawn Pooh, I watched The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a collection of the shorts done in the '60s and '70s. Seeing the new Pooh is a true throwback to the old shorts; Disney has captured everything, from the watercolor look of the original animation, to the individual personalities of iconic characters like Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore and Owl.
The plot is new, but familiar, with Pooh venturing out into the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays. He needs to find some honey for his grumbly tummy (which features a very nice sound effect), and eventually finds himself searching for Eeyore's tail. A note (rife with spelling errors, of course) left by Christopher leaves the impression that he has been kidnapped by a terrible beast called the Backson, which lends to the drama.
Remember how the new Kermit the Frog voice after Jim Henson died sounded a little weird? Well, you won't feel that way when Pooh opens his mouth to talk. Jim Cummings, who has been handling the Pooh voice since 1988 (and Tigger, too, for this movie), has crafted his Sterling Holloway impersonation into perfection. Holloway was the unforgettable voice of Pooh in the classic shorts, and Cummings sounds exactly like him. The vocal similarity certainly lends to a warm, nostalgic feeling when Pooh moans, "Oh bother."
Hats off to late-night talk-show host Craig Ferguson for his wonderful turn as Owl. He proves to be an inspired choice, livening up the proceedings with his every word. Travis Oates does a decent job replacing the late John Fielder as Piglet, and Bud Luckey nails every deadpan line as Eeyore. Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants) lends his elastic voice to Rabbit.
John Cleese steps into the role of the narrator (a job previously held by Sebastian Cabot), a wonderful role that often has the storyteller interacting with the characters. As in the classic shorts, the characters are often seen walking around on the pages of the book from which the story emerges.
The look and sound of the film make this new chapter feel like something that was produced 30 years ago. The movie is just 69 minutes long, which feels breezy and perfect. Perhaps the short running time will leave some feeling that they didn't get their money's worth, but for that hour, it's pure, golden entertainment, which is more than I can say for this summer's Transformers or Green Lantern.
Winnie isn't without some modern touches, the most blessed of them being the crystalline, sweet voice of Zooey Deschanel on the soundtrack. Deschanel (with help from She and Him music partner M. Ward) sings the theme song, which gets the film off to a joyous start. Her voice, thankfully, doesn't disappear after that opening theme. She shows up on some new original songs, including a dreamy tribute to Pooh's favorite food, honey.
Other songs sung by Pooh and friends are almost uncanny in their old-time Disney feel. Having recently visited the Disneyland theme park, I easily got my Disney buzz back while listening to the music.
The movie is short, but it feels like a complete experience. Make sure to stay through the credits, which feature cute moments with the characters; there's also a very funny post-credit coda.
Winnie the Pooh didn't exactly tear things up on its opening weekend (during which Potter broke many records), pulling in a modest $8 million. I'm hoping some positive word of mouth gives it some staying power, because like Pooh craves his honey, I'm craving more Winnie the Pooh.