Monday, July 20, 2009
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The movies are so much more different when seen through the eyes of children. In our youth, we spend a great deal more time looking than we do listening, and the visuals matter more to us than the words. Every now and then it takes an animated film made for children to remind adults of this important necessity. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of those films, partially because the animation is so vivid and, partially, because the logic expressed by the characters is justifiably childlike. Winnie the Pooh and his colleagues, after all, started out as bedtime stories. When author A.A. Milne told his real-life son Christopher Robin of Pooh's adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, he made sure to tell these stories with a child's interpretation of such adventures. When The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was released in 1977, the filmmakers remained faithful to Milne's approach.
Take for example one of the first scenes in the film, when the Narrator introduces us to Winnie the Pooh. The Narrator starts off by explaining that Pooh "lived under the name of Sanders". Adults have their own definition of what such an expression might mean- but, to a child such as Christopher Robin, the definition is something more literal: it means that "Sanders" was a name pasted above Pooh's doorway in gold letters, "and he lived under it". So, rather than give a lecture on what it really meant to "live under the name of Sanders", Milne realized that it would be far easier to elaborate in the way that a child might interpret the expression. Sort of like the "Bedtime Worries" episode of The Little Rascals, when Spanky assumes that "kidnapping" is when "kids go to bed and take a nap".
Take, also, a scene later in the film, when we are first introduced to the immortal Tigger, who invades Pooh's home in the middle of the night. Tigger is quite certain that he is one of a kind. "Then, what's that over there?" Pooh asks, pointing to Tigger's reflection in the mirror. Tigger carefully observes his reflection and, yes, he even admires it. Pooh suggests that it may be another Tigger. But Tigger puts his foot down; it may look like another Tigger, but it just isn't. Tigger, like the average child, would sooner insist that he is correct than he would back up the situation with facts. For Tigger, it should already be obvious from the very beginning: he's the only one.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a compilation of the first three original Winnie the Pooh animated shorts created by Disney in the 1960's: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), in which Pooh unsuccessfully attempts to raid a honey tree and, later, finds himself stuck in the front door of Rabbit's house; Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), in which Pooh first meets Tigger in the middle of a monstrous storm that is ravaging the Hundred Acre Wood; and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974), in which Rabbit organizes a conspiracy plot with the sole advantage of getting Tigger to quit his bouncing habit. Walt Disney himself had supervised over the first short film, which had been released the year of his death.
In fact, the studio's involvement with the franchise dated back to 1961, when Disney optioned the rights to Milne's books. It had always been Disney's plan to have the three short films released first, and then, once the public got to know the characters well, release a feature film in which all were combined. A decade later, after Disney had passed on and after all three of the short films had been released, directors Wolfgang Reitherman and John Lounsbery, who had also helped on the short films, finally proceeded to make Disney's original vision come true and release a feature film.
The film is so satisfying, first of all, because of the incredible voice talents. If Disney had not found the right voice for Pooh, how could we connect? The voice had to come from somebody who could speak in a dialect that was lacking in maturity but gaining in its requests for sympathy. So with great luck it was that Disney found Sterling Holloway, who, up until that point, was not very well known by audiences, although some might have known him as a familiar face (he appeared as one of the family feuders in Michael Curtiz's 1960 adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). The timid-voiced John Fiedler, best known at that time as Juror #2 in Twelve Angry Men (1957), was selected to be the voice of Piglet, and in some ways found the character that his image would be associated with for the remainder of his career. Disney screenwriter Ralph Wright, who had contributed to the dialogue for Peter Pan (1953) and Lady in the Tramp (1955), was chosen to voice the moody donkey Eeyore. A young Clint Howard provided the voice for Roo. Other voice talents, including Junius Matthews as Rabbit, Hal Smith as Owl, and Sebastian Cabot as the Narrator, were hired probably because they had previously worked with director Reitherman on other projects (Matthews on The Sword in the Stone, Smith on The Jungle Book released a year later, Cabot on both of those films). Reitherman's son, Bruce Reitherman, voiced Christopher Robin for the feature film's release, since the character had been voiced by different actors in each of the three short films.
None of the voice talents in the film, however, exceed that of Paul Winchell, who more or less steals the show as Tigger. A former television star who had worked with personalities ranging from Dick Van Dyke to Lucille Balle, Winchell was, like Holloway and Fielder, a familiar face to audiences. But it was with the role of Tigger that Winchell found his calling. It is not an easy role at all; it requires the voice actor to talk fast, sing well, pronounce exhuberantly and add memorable sound effects. The average voice actor would probably struggle for hours trying to say, "TTFM, Tah Tah For Now!" with the most precise punch and effect. Winchell makes it sound easy. From 1968 to 1999, he was the unseen performer behind Tigger's voice, and during that entire period, his voice rarely sounded the least bit aged. Ironically, in his spare time, Winchell was also an inventor, and has been alleged by some to have created the first artificial heart (which the invention's attributed creator, Dr. Jarvik, has denied).
The three individual segments of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh are filled with sequences that you may remember from your childhood, or sequences of which you may never have forgotten and have kept to this day. Consider the unforgettable image of Pooh using a balloon to fly up to the nearby honey tree while disguised in thick mud. Other memorable images come to mind: a sinister little yellow jacket on a tree branch laughing at Pooh's misfortunes with a swarm of bees. Pooh's rear end sticking out of Rabbit's front door, which Rabbit curiously tries to turn into a moose sculpture. The inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood rallying together to rescue Pooh, and launching him clear out over the book's pages and smack-dab into the hole in the honey tree.
There's more. Tigger making his first grand entrance into the film by bouncing Pooh, hence confirming his statement that bouncing is what Tiggers do best. Pooh talking to himself in the mirror, armed with a cork rifle and directing his reflection to patrol the other side of the room. Christopher Robin throwing a "hero" party for Pooh and Piglet. Rabbit getting lost in the mist of the woods and growing paranoid at the constant noise made by a hungry caterpillar and a pack of bullfrogs in the dark. Tigger getting stuck up in a high tree and, after coming down, being humiliated after Rabbit bans him from ever bouncing again. Or the pesky Gopher (hilariously voiced by Howard Morris), who always pops up in the wrong place at the wrong time; when the other characters lambast him for failing to be much help, he always reminds them that he's "not in the book". The list goes on.
Of the three segments, The Blustery Day is unquestionably the finest. With its falling houses, raging floods and wild waterfalls, this segment offers the most excitement. Best of all, it includes the infamous "Heffalumps and Woozles" nightmare sequence, which, although quite clearly a clone of the "Pink Elephants" sequence in Dumbo (1941), is nevertheless a dazing mind trip at the heart of the film. Masterfully tuned by Richard and Robert Sherman (who also score the other many catchy songs of the film), this sequence features dazzling images of Pooh fleeing from a parade of Woozles in soldier uniform while Heffalumps dance in sticky pools of honey and the Honey Pots themselves instruct Pooh to "beware" of impending danger. Along with that, characters Tigger and Piglet are introduced for the first time. It's no surprise that The Blustery Day won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film- as a short film, it is close to incomparable.
One of the elements of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh that makes it unique amongst its studio predecessors is the constant habit of the characters of breaking the fourth wall. This device was hardly present in the three individual short films, but it is used in this feature film as a way of weaving the three stories together into one. Sebastian Cabot's grandfatherly Narrator gives us the impression that we really are turning through the pages of a long storybook, and each of the three segments is treated like one of the book's three chapters. When The Honey Tree segment closes, the Narrator is preparing to turn the next page until he is stopped short by a hungry Pooh ("I haven't finished yet!"), who then changes his mind when the Narrator informs him that he is in the next chapter. At the conclusion of The Blustery Day, when the Narrator reveals that the following chapter is going to contain "a great deal of bouncing", an exhausted Piglet panics and flees from the scene, claiming that he must get home and attend to unfinished business. Most cleverly, the Narrator even intervenes at a crucial point in the Tigger Too segment, right when it seems that there is no hope of Tigger getting down from the tree.
I was quite fond of the Pooh characters in my childhood, but at some point growing up I began asking the question: why is the Hundred Acre Wood so lacking in female characters? Some of us grow up falsely believing that Rabbit is a female, perhaps because he is a gardener and often acts like the angry old lady next door (or maybe because Junius Matthews's voice gives us the impression that we're hearing an actress speaking, even when it's really a male actor the whole time). After years of pondering this, I wonder if maybe the reason goes all the way back to Milne's books. When Milne told these stories to Christopher Robin, he was probably aware that young boys much prefer their heroes to be masculine, and would rather do without the female sidekicks- that may explain why the only female in the Hundred Acre Wood, Roo's mother Kanga (soothingly voiced by Barbara Luddy) just so happens to be a maternal figure. The Hundred Acre Wood, after all, is really just a universe that Christopher Robin has created in his own imagination, and for all we know, Christopher Robin isn't even at the right age to go to school yet. Girls are going to be a part of his later life- i.e., the part of his life when he'll be too old to daydream about the Hundred Acre Wood and will most likely abandon Pooh and his pals for good.
Now, that is the cynic's way of predicting what is to become of Christopher Robin and his relationship with Pooh and company. But the ending of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, animated by then-Disney animators Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, is a complete contradiction to this theory. They base the ending of the film on the final chapter of Milne's book The House at Pooh Corner, which depicts the final parting between Christopher Robin and Pooh (this same sequence was later recycled in the excellent 1997 direct-to-video sequel Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin). Because Christopher Robin is about to head off to school, where he will learn about such subjects as "where a place called 'Brazil' is", he tries to console Pooh by teaching him about the process of "doing nothing". Doing nothing, as Christopher Robin explains to Pooh, is when you respond, "Oh, nothing", when people ask you about your activities for the day, and then "going out and doing it". Pooh thinks that this sounds like fun. Christopher Robin further tries to ease the pain of this final parting by making Pooh promise to be at his side even by the time he reaches the age of 100. "How old will I be by then?" Pooh asks, to which Christopher Robin responds, "99".
What makes this such an appropriate ending for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is that it is, in some ways, about the death of one's childhood. Like Christopher Robin, all of us eventually gave up childish things- and most of us, after reaching the middle school age, also gave up interest in Winnie the Pooh. Strangely, as we become adults, our interest in characters such as Pooh are revived all over again- not necessarily for the same reasons we had as children, but because we look at them through somewhat overly complicated views, such as this article of mine. We can't help it, though. Family authors are truly gifted individuals. They reach out to the youth and help them to take their first steps. Family filmmakers have to undergo a similar challenge, but with each passing decade the family films get more immature. Walt Disney Pictures, Warner Bros Animation and DreamWorks Animated Studios all sold out at one point. What if modern animators were to turn to the influence of Disney's original "Nine Old Men", including Wolfgang Reitherman, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and the like?
Wolfgang Reitherman (1909-1985) was one of the underrated Disney filmmakers. Some would blame him for the decline of Disney's magic touch after the 1950's, which, indeed, was not one of the studio's highpoints. A few of Reitherman's films (The Sword in the Stone, The Aristocats, Robin Hood) are rightly regarded as interesting misfires. But Reitherman's lasting accomplishment of dragging Disney safely through the catastrophic Nixon-Ford era should not be ignored. The studio endured, and some of Reitherman's films rank among its best. 101 Dalmations (1961), The Jungle Book (1967), The Rescuers (1977) and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh are all great films, and the Reitherman-produced The Fox and the Hound (1981) was arguably the last Disney masterpiece created before the studio reached a brief dry spell in the mid-1980's. With The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Reitherman's greatest accomplishment was something rather sentimental: he made Walt Disney's dream a reality. He directed a feature film based on Milne's characters, and the whole world fell in love with them. Those who dismiss Pooh as just another childish thing, I'm afraid, have lost their imagination and need to go catch it. As adults, we have our own way of exploring the Hundred Acre Wood; there is no need for us to fiercly attend to our gardens and lock ourselves up in our homes the way Rabbit does. "Why did I ever invite that bear to lunch?", he whines at one point, "why oh why oh why?"