Friday, 10 January 2014

KIDS' STUFF: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

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The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (USA, 1977)
Directed by John Lounsbery & Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring Sterling Holloway, John Fielder, Junius Matthews, Paul Winchell

It's funny how creative artists in general, and authors in particular, become indelibly associated with one specific work or character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is forever tied to Sherlock Holmes, F. Scott Fitzgerald to Jay Gatsby and A. A. Milne to Winnie the Pooh. All three men enjoyed a wider career outside of their most famous works, and both Doyle and Milne became rather disparaging about their characters' popularity. But while Doyle and Fitzgerald's work has been adapted many times, and in many different ways, Milne's work has become almost inseparable from Disney's interpretation.

To some extent, this is a reflection of the wider dominance that Disney enjoys in our popular culture. The Disney fairy tale adaptations are regularly taken as gospel truth, though many of them differ vastly from even the most widely accepted versions of the original stories. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Winnie the Pooh hereafter) suffers from a similar problem, with Disney watering down the distinctly British qualities to appeal to a wider audience. It's still passably entertaining, but he's not quite the silly old bear he once was.
Winnie the Pooh's journey from page to screen is rather protracted. When Milne died in 1956, the rights to the four Pooh stories were shared four ways between his family, the Garrick Club, Westminster School and the Royal Literary Fund. Milne's widow subsequently sold her stake to the widow of Stephen Slesinger, the illustrator who had created Pooh's distinctive red shirt. She subsequently sold the rights to Disney in 1961, with the first Pooh short, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, appearing five years later.
In terms of Disney heritage, Winnie the Pooh is closest to the package films of the 1940s. It consists of a given number of shorts (in this case three) connected by an often-arbitrary framing device (in this case, turning the pages of a book). Like the package films, it rises and falls on the strength of its individual parts - though the parts in this case were already successful in their own right, rather than being half-finished leftovers from World War II. And both this film and the likes of Make Mine Music are essentially money-making exercises: they are not so much labours of love as means to buy the company time.
But while its structural roots are firmly in the 1940s, Winnie the Pooh is aesthetically very much a product of its time. Although Walt Disney was personally involved in the first of the shorts, the auteur of this film is Wolfgang Reitherman, whose work I have frequently criticised. This is among his better offerings as a director, with the paler, more pastel colour scheme complimenting the pastoral feel of the material. But it still looks and feels like something that was thrown together on the cheap, by someone who lacked both Disney's imagination and his skill as a storyteller.
The framing device of the turning pages is a further illustration of Disney's decline in this period under the lesser talents of Reitherman and John Lounsbery. Disney often used books in his fairy tale adaptations, and sometimes (as on Sleeping Beauty) they were used to reduce the amount of animation needed in the opening sequences. But while these films quickly got into their stride, Winnie the Pooh leans upon this device very heavily, and even with the animation of the text it comes across as an obvious exercise in cost-cutting. The animation itself is just one step up from zooming in on an illustration which then comes to life, which Disney has done much better on numerous occasions.
One of the main criticisms of Disney's Winnie the Pooh is that it sanitises the characters, making everything too cute and cuddly and thereby losing a lot of the rough-edged English charm of the original. While both the original stories and the film are intended for very young children, the books occasionally delve into subject matters which are more grown-up in nature. The film, by contrast, is completely innocuous: it contains nothing that could possible offend, but also very little that could actively engage or stimulate.
The best example of this departure comes with the ending. In addition to the three shorts, the film includes a fourth section which is based on the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner. It involves Christopher Robin taking Pooh into the Hundred Acre Wood and bidding him farewell on account of him starting school, ending on the immortal line: "Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the forest, a Little Boy and his Bear will always be playing." In the book this is a heartbreaking moment, representing the loss of innocence and putting childhood ways behind you. In the film, it lacks all meaning, being tacked on to Tigger's hi-jinks without context or emotional weight.
Even if we accept that Milne's creations come from a more innocent time and place, emotional miscues like this prevents us from bonding to the characters as much as we would like. What we are left with is the light-hearted antics of the shorts themselves, whose self-contained stories are relatively stake-free. Each of the three shorts has odd funny moments, and the voice cast do their best in each case, but ultimately the whole project is little more than a very forgettable diversion.
The voice cast of Winnie the Pooh are generally good, with many of the main players coming straight from The Jungle Book or The Sword in the Stone. Sterling Holloway is very good as Pooh, capturing his gleefulness and naivety in his quivering voice and generating a fair amount of laughs when Pooh tries to be serious. Sebastian Cabot is a capable narrator, whose lilting tones are well-suited to the material, and Ralph Wright is reasonable as Eeyore even if he doesn't have the range of his literary counterpart.
There's also very pleasant supporting roles by Paul Winchell as Tigger and Junius Matthews as Rabbit. The latter also lent his voice to Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone, and both bring much-needed energy to their given stories. The weak link in the casting is Christopher Robin, who is played by three different actors include Reitherman's young son Bruce. This creates a disjointed feel to the proceedings which exacerbates the creakiness of the framing device and the over-emphasis on goofy fun.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a harmless and innocuous slice of second-rate Disney which is very much a product of its time. It departs from its source material in disappointing ways and is deeply forgettable for the most part, but equally there is so little in it that could possibly offend and thereby it is hard to get angry with it. It's passable fare for a rainy afternoon, but all in all it's far too safe and far too dull.

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NEXT REVIEW: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

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