Sunday, May 5, 2013

Disney Canon: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a unique film in Disney Canon history. Released in 1977, you could say this is the first Package film in the Canon since the forties, since it is composed out of three shorts focusing on the adventures of the title character. But doing so would ignore a big difference, unlike the package films Disney made during World War II, the shorts featured in this movie had all been released previous to being packed together in this feature-length release. Not only that, but they were produced in 1966, 1968 and 1974 respectively, a tumultuous time that saw a lot of change in the Studio, some of which is apparent in the shifting quality and recycling (Tigger's signature dance) of the animation as the years go along.

The origin date of the shorts is an aspect of the film that I have in mind every time I try to suggest The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh as a valid point in proving that not all the movies that Disney made in the period between Walt's death and the '90s Renaissance are disposable and inherently inferior to the rest of the Canon. As you may see from the timeline in which the shorts were produced, at least one of them was released before Disney's death (and he surely had strong creative influence in the production of the second one). At least those two segments are products of a time in which the studio still was in pretty good shape. A time that also gave us One Hundred One Dalmatians, Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. In that sense, is it really fair to say this is an exception to the "dark days of Disney" output? This question becomes even more relevant when you consider the third short, the one released in 1974, is by far the weakest of the three.

No matter how you choose to interpret The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh's place in the Canon, there is no denying it is a successful film. Last week, I tried to make something of a case for Robin Hood, a movie that I find very enjoyable and somewhat underrated within the Canon, but also one whose quality, and even its heart, are put into question when compared to Winnie-the-Pooh. I hadn't seen The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh since I was a child, partly because I prefer watching shorts on their own instead of packed into larger films and partly because I felt a little of character fatigue. I think few characters in the Disney repertoire have suffered (at least in my perception) as much as Winnie the Pooh for being overexposed by the Disney marketing machine. Because it is such a wholesome story, that easily and reliably appeals to very young children it has mostly been marketed as such, making the property lose a lot of its edge (if it ever had one). Paradoxically, it's exactly the film's commitment to appeal to young children that makes it such a good movie.

The sequence in the above video (featuring the song "Little Black Rain Cloud") is an example of the Winnie the Pooh character working at its best. Immediately charming, funny and entertaining, it is both to the animators credit, and also (I would say most importantly) to the amazing voice-work by Sterling Holloway that the character became (and remains) such a great success. Very few times have I found a case in which it has been so clearly how much the work of a voice actor has elevated a character. It is enough to watch any clip featuring Pooh muted to understand how much Holloway's work adds to the character. He is still sweet and adorable, but he gains a whole other level of effectiveness once Holloway's vocal strings enter the mix.

The scene in that video comes from the first short in the film, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, and was one of my favorites when I was a kid. This is the short in which looking for honey to eat, Pooh ends up stuck in the door of Rabbit's house and is probably my favorite segment from the film. Holloway's performance, the animation style and even the background paintings all embrace a certain tone and simplicity inherent to childhood. One that is frequently present in the movies and media that most perfectly evoke what is like to be a child and that makes me think of another great piece of pop-culture and an outright work of genius known as Charlez M. Schultz's Peanuts. The way Pooh stands and interacts with Christopher Robin in that clip is something lifted out of a Peanuts comic strip and that similarly understands a deep chore in childhood thinking. Having been mildly averse to the character in the past few years, this is something about Winnie the Pooh that I have just realized re-watching the movie for this post and also something that immediately explains and justifies (at least in my mind) the popularity of the character.

But enough about Pooh, many of the most beloved Disney characters come from these shorts. Including one of my favorites, the eternally pessimistic Eeyore, and one so famous that rivals even Pooh in popularity: Tigger. He is introduced in the second short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (which I think general consensus says is the best of the three), but there he is just a funny side character, whereas the true potential of the character is explored in the third short: Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. At this point I must admit that Tigger is not amongst my favorite characters from the Winnie the Pooh cast and that even as a child I found the character a little overwhelming. Still, as a child I recognized and appreciated the character's bouncy energy and the edge he brought to an otherwise rather calm set of characters. And as an adult, I similarly appreciate the character's more child-like traits.
Tigger might have aged better than Winnie the Pooh as far as popularity is concerned because, when you come down to it, who is Tigger if not an hyperactive child of the XXI century? Not only that, but Tigger is another proof of the writers and animators deep understanding and commitment to childhood thinking. Case in point, the whole third short revolves around how Tigger's bouncing can overwhelm and be a problem to others without him noticing. Still, Tigger is a child at play, who in the final moments of the short has to confront a mature and stressed-out Rabbit and the idea of not being able to engage in his bounces. Starting around the five-minute mark of this clip, you'll see what I'm talking about. A moment of animation so true to what a child feels when he suddenly encounters a stop to his relentless joy that undoubtedly belongs in the animation hall of fame.

I like Robin Hood, and I enjoy almost all of Disney's output during the 70s and 80s at least at some level, but when you add Winnie the Pooh to the equation, then there's no competing. The people working on this film seem to understand what they have set out to do and decided to embrace it to the limit making this one of the few instances in Disney movies (or any movie for that matter) in which catering to a very young audience has actually been a huge advantage and resulted in a superior product. The key? The understanding and embracing of primal childhood feelings and situations. Yes, being so primal is what makes The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh one of the Disney Canon's best.

Next Time: We march on through the "dark days" of Disney and meet Bernard and Miss Bianca in 1977's The Rescuers. 

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