'Winnie the Pooh' Lovingly Goes Old-School
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The first question people ask me when they learn I've seen the new "Winnie the Pooh" movie is, "So is it all CGI-ed and stuff?" And, most everybody will be happy to learn, no, it is not. The characters here are rendered and animated in the same style as in the 1960s Disney films of the beloved children's' classics, their designs having been adapted from Stephen Slesinger Inc.'s adaptations of the original book illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. A great deal of care, it would seem, was taken in preserving the cute and homey feel of those cartoons, which were done in the flatter, somewhat limited animation style that was a great contrast to the elaborate work that distinguished Disney in its early feature-making years.
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This extends to the voice work. The new voice cast seems to have been chosen largely for its ability to simulate the tones of the actors in the older films; hence, Jim Cummings, doing both the title bear and the raucous Tigger, is a remarkable sound-alike for Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell, the respective vocal originators of those characters. Even the great and hardly unknown John Cleese, not an indistinct vocal presence himself, goes to some lengths to sound like original narrator Sebastian Cabot. And he succeeds.
Which isn't to say that the film entirely ignores this modern world, or the advanced animation production techniques this modern world has to offer. There are a slew of new original songs in this brisk feature, tunes co-written by "Book of Mormon" co-creator Robert Lopez (parents, fear not: These songs are clean as a whistle) and sung by the princess of the new winsomeness, Zooey Deschanel. And while the animation all looks very hand-drawn -- down to the slightly irregular, almost pulsating lines that form Tigger, contributing much to that character's kinetic dynamism and reminding us how much this character must have inspired certain aspects of "Calvin and Hobbes" -- the film has a few set pieces that clearly must have benefited from some kind of cyber assist, most notably a charming and sticky sequence in which Pooh hallucinates swimming in honey. The storytelling's also niftily clever, showing the characters walking across the words that make up the storybook the audience is supposed to be "in," and at certain point using its letters to advance the action. After the noisome and incoherent "Meet the Robinsons," I wouldn't have imagined that co-directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall had it in them, but working with a writing staff of more than a half-dozen others, they concoct something consistently lively and clever and engaging and lovely to look at.
This "Pooh" adapts -- or, I should say, extrapolates from, or takes great liberties with -- Chapter 5 of "The House at Pooh Corner," in which Christopher Robin leaves a note for his woodland friends misspelling the words "Back Soon," which leads the fake-erudite tall tale-telling Owl to make up a creature called the Backson. In the book, the Owl trails off after demurring as to whether Christopher's new friend is an Herbaceous or Spotted Backson, but in this film, using the chalkboard that's proving a poor substitute for Eeyore's missing tail (said tale being the engine that's been driving the story up to that point) he draws out an exciting, woodland-friends-frightening legend of a ferocious forest monster that, he leads all the others to believe, has kidnapped poor Christopher. (The sequence in which the Backson chases the lovable characters through the 100 Acre Wood is rendered in a lively and ultra-colorful simulation of a chalkboard-animation rendition of same, another particularly nifty instance of how the filmmakers change up the movie's look at specific points.)
The catch here for adults is that for all of its fun, "Winnie the Pooh" is still is very much a movie for children, as opposed to a movie for children that's ostensibly equally appreciable for adults, as so much Pixar fare tends to be. Unless you're unusually in touch with your inner child, or are some kind of animation freak (and this reviewer has been inclined to indulge that tendency over the years), there are going to be points while watching this when you're going to be very aware of taking one for the team, as it were. And if you're one of those folks who shares Dorothy Parker's famed low opinion of Pooh (her review of Milne's "Pooh Corner" contains the phrase "fwowed up"), you may want to make the film outing a task for your nanny, and just sit at home and drink your pain, you poor cynical heartless bastard you.
The version of the feature I saw was preceded by a very charming short called "The Legend of Nessie," a Scottish-set fable whose look harks back to the halcyon days of famed Disney designer and colorist Mary Blair, whose artwork graced such Disney classics as "Cinderella" and "Peter Pan" and who was behind that whole "It's a Small World" World's Fair thing. See, I wasn't kidding with that whole "animation freak" business.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.