What, apart from quality, separates the new Winnie the Pooh from The Tigger Movie, Piglet’s Big Movie and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie? All four, made within the last decade-plus, were culled from A.A. Milne’s original Pooh stories, and yet Disney has made a point of classifying their latest iteration as either a reboot or the “true” follow-up to the original run of Pooh shorts, which were packaged together in the 1977 compilation The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Perhaps it’s simply the difference between using a source and honoring it, too, although the source this Pooh honors most are the first Pooh films.
Every effort was made to evoke the light, unpretentious yet meta-playful feel of the shorts made in the ’60s and ’70s, the only major difference (apart from the voices, each of which has been expertly mimicked) being the way it mashes up three stories rather than tell them one at a time. John Cleese warmly narrates the tale of how, while searching for Eyeore’s errant tacked-on tail, Pooh and his fellow semi- or il-literates got sidetracked after misreading the words “back soon” on a note from owner Christopher Robbins, imagining it as the name of a ludicrously horrifying beastie.
The comedy of errors that transpires summons up a bygone era, right down to the way the words from the stories pop up on-screen to be traversed or, at one point, actually solve a plot dilemma. Even more impressive is how the makers have avoided nearly every trope of modern commercial cartoon-making. There’s no bloat, pop culture references, bad songs (for the most part) or, most heroically, dumb requisite homilies.
Like the action it depicts, Winnie the Pooh exists in a vacuum, a decision, as with the originals, that makes it all the more moving. The old The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ends, bittersweetly, with Christopher Robbins getting older, suggesting, without ever making explicit, that this imagined world of anthropomorphic pet toys will fade slowly into the ether. (Not even the last Toy Story, which actually deposited its characters into a furnace, went that dark.) This Winnie the Pooh is never that bleak, except, again, by implication: each plot turn stems from Pooh et al.’s inability to function without their owner. And it will only get worse.