Inspired by 5 of A. A. Milne’s original Pooh stories, Winnie the Pooh was marketed as a nostalgic return of the beloved characters. Particularly memorable was a trailer emphasizing the use of traditional animation set to “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane. While the film wasn’t a huge box office success, it was embraced by critics and fans alike as a return to form for the characters and for Disney animation.
John Cleese’s narration provides the backdrop to the adventures of the beloved stuffed animals, from searching for Eeyore’s tail to avoiding the dreaded Backson. Although the movie is based on the aforementioned stories, the events all happen simultaneously throughout the film. So unlike some Disney spin-offs and sequels, Winnie the Pooh’s stories are all subplots rather than unrelated vignettes. Jim Cummings reprises his classic Pooh and Tigger voices, with Bud Luckey (Rick Dicker from The Incredibles) stepping in to voice Eeyore, to tremendous effect. Craig Ferguson voices owl, Kanga is played by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who is also one of the film’s songwriters), Travis Oates plays Piglet, and Tom Kenny (A.K.A. Spongebob) brings a new energy to Rabbit. Winnie the Pooh contains the classic musical Pooh theme, modernized by Zooey Deschanel, who also wrote and performs “So Long” in the film’s credits. All of the other musical interludes are written by Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez, the duo behind the Frozen soundtrack. The film’s score is composed by Henry Jackman, who has also scored Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and more.
Suffice it to say, Winnie the Pooh is a film that has a lot going for it. The voice cast are all perfect for their roles, the original music is great and very clever, and the animation is a slight update of classic Pooh while still maintaining the same feel and general aesthetic. However, I have to say, I do not like this film as much as a lot of Disney and Pooh fans seem to. In the last ten years or so Disney has done some of their best work ever, and this movie always gets lost among the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph in my mind. For me, this year’s Christopher Robin was a better send-up of the classic tales, and it also works better as a film.
The stories in Winnie the Pooh don’t really amount to anything, and the conflict with the Backson is ultimately a misunderstanding brought on by Owl misreading a letter from Christopher Robin. I feel that it would be unfair to criticise this element of the film in itself, as that’s exactly how Pooh stories usually play out. But this film is extremely short at 63 minutes, and while it does feel like Winnie the Pooh should, it also feels like nothing. The jokes are funny, the songs are very smartly composed, and the animation is simple yet sweet, but nothing about the movie is very memorable. All I remember without re-reading the summary is the Backson and Eeyore’s tail, but actually, a few major events happen in the film, being that it takes its plot from five different stories. Directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Stephen J. Anderson (Meet the Robinsons) speak in the bonus material on the DVD about various scenes that were cut due to pacing issues, and I can’t help but wonder if the studio executives insisted on the measly one-hour length. Any of these stories could have rounded the film’s runtime as well as given it some content. After watching Christopher Robin, it feels like you’ve had a nice dinner; after watching Winnie the Pooh, it feels like you’ve had a light salad without any dressing. You eat it and it’s not bad, but there’s not really any flavor, and after 15 minutes you’ve forgotten about the salad and you’re hungry again.
After they marketed Winnie the Pooh as a comeback for the denizens of the 100 Acre Wood, I just wasn’t satisfied with the final product. Even by Pooh standards, this film feels inconsequential and ineffective. Simply reminding one that these characters exist isn’t enough to provoke an emotional response. Even 2000’s direct-to-video The Tigger Movie had stakes and an emotional core. The story of Tigger searching for his family may seem obvious or sappy, but it’s something; it’s emotional, and it’s funny. It may seem wrong to fault a film for its marketing, and Disney almost always gets their marketing wrong anyway, but regardless, the way Winnie the Pooh was advertised set up certain expectations that its meager runtime and unimportant plot elements could not satisfy.
However, I don’t think it’s fair to ignore the film’s merits either. Again, the voice cast is perfect. Some of the re-cast actors, Rabbit and Owl in particular, are very obvious changes, but as I mentioned in my Christopher Robin review, this is bound to happen with such long-lived characters. They’ve been recast before, and they’ll be recast again; the actors do a fantastic job nonetheless. They properly portray their character’s personality while still making it their own. I sort of question John Cleese as the chosen narrator, though. I love John Cleese, but he’s absolutely wasted; he doesn’t get to do anything funny or improvise his dialogue, as he’s literally just telling the story. Why cast such a hilarious and talented performer to narrate the actions of other characters who get to have all the fun?
The songs in Winnie the Pooh are mostly excellent. I don’t like Deschanel’s version of the classic Pooh theme, as I wish it were more like the version from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I dislike the jazzy vibe Deschanel brings to the tune, but I actually love her song for the credits, “So Long.” It’s very catchy and really evokes the emotions and memories tied to the Pooh characters. All of the songs by the Lopezes are great; seriously, if you like Frozen, this soundtrack is just as good and without the skippable tracks. I love the non-diegetic songs as well as the songs the characters themselves perform. The film’s animation is good, a decent update of the classic Disney Pooh style. I don’t know whether I like that they gave Christopher Robin big eyes with pupils or not, but it isn’t a big deal either way.
It’s hard to explain exactly what I take issue with in regards to Winnie the Pooh. All of the Pooh stories are essentially the nonsense creations of a little boy, and that’s what they should be. But, for example, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh leaves more of an impression; I can still tell you the names of the vignettes in that film and what happens in them. While Winnie the Pooh is an enjoyable enough experience, it’s not very memorable, and I don’t understand why it’s so well-loved. Overall, Winnie the Pooh is fine, but it’s also fine to skip it. If you want to see the Pooh characters do things for an hour and then completely forget about it, this is the movie for you.