The benefit to having a cast of characters that has been around for almost a century is that they need no introduction. Even if a particular audience member has never seen a Winnie the Pooh movie, he or she is at least familiar with the property because somewhere, somehow advertising for the brand has reached them. As such, the burden is lifted on the filmmakers and they can simply tell an engaging tale without being bogged down by an origin story. The drawback is that the characters are all deeply ingrained into the minds of consumers and it’s difficult to do anything new without threatening a mental disconnect with audiences’ preconceptions. Winnie the Pooh makes a few tweaks to the well-known franchise that help give it a modern feel and comes through with overall successful results.
Christopher Robin, as the Narrator (John Cleese) explains, is a young boy who has an uncanny ability to collect things. Coupled with his limitless imagination, Christopher brings the Hundred Acre Wood to life where his stuffed animals live and go on zany adventures. Christopher’s favorite of the bunch is Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), a bear “of very little brain” and a strong affinity for honey. He’s accompanied by a host of odd, yet intriguing animal companions, like Tigger the tiger (also voiced by Jim Cummings), Kanga (voiced by Kristen Anderson-Lopez) and her son Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall), Piglet (Travis Oates), Owl (Craig Ferguson) and Rabbit (Tom Kenny). Unfortunately, they aren’t the most intelligent bunch and often let their imaginations get the best of them. So when Christopher Robin leaves them a poorly spelled message to inform them that he’ll be “back soon”, Pooh and company think Christopher has been abducted by the dreaded Backson! It’s up to the group to save Christopher from his horrible fate and maybe find some honey along the way.
Winnie the Pooh is a beautiful visual experience. For older viewers, the hand-drawn art style will be a refreshing throwback to older Disney films that these viewers enjoyed as children. For younger viewers, the art direction will be a novel experience. There are a few moments that integrate more contemporary 3-D art styles, like when Pooh begins to hallucinate due to honey starvation, but overall, the film maintains its classic look, which works to its favor. Most importantly, however, the look and feel of the animation fits perfectly with the filmmakers’ goal of bringing a storybook to life.
Winnie the Pooh constantly breaks the fourth wall (sort of), zooming out to reveal that the scene is actually a picture in a book with words surrounding the visuals. In one sense, it’s a very cool effect that will have young viewers giggling in their seats. Early on, when the Narrator is unable to wake the heavy sleeping Pooh, the book is turned upside down, spilling the bear out of bed. It’s an elegantly simple way of establishing the rules for the rest of the film. On the other hand, some viewers might find the convention clever to a fault, especially when the characters begin interacting with the letters on the page.
As a tool to reintroduce the Winnie the Pooh brand to audiences, this film performs wonderfully. Viewers will get a good sense for most of the characters and the goofiness of the group as a whole. Pooh and friends are adorable characters that any viewer of any age can appreciate. They’re silly and don’t always get things right, but always err on the side of good, and that’s a theme every family should partake of. As a satisfying story, however, Winnie the Pooh falls short of having the kind of heart and soul that viewers have come to expect from animated films. In other successful animated movies, those stories touched on emotions, like fear, loss and love that everyone understood on a primal level. Those emotions are missing here. As such, this one is mainly for the kids.
The voice talent are top-notch and the characters are mostly unchanged, though a few curious updates don’t add much. For instance, Rabbit has traditionally been presented as an older character who was a bit of a curmudgeon. This incarnation feels much younger and amiable, rendering him less distinct. Nevertheless, audiences will never bore listening to the wonderful voice actors. Additionally, Zooey Deschanel was a wise selection for singing the Winnie the Pooh theme song as well other tunes in the film. Her voice maintains a unique vivaciousness that fits this film perfectly.
Winnie the Pooh is a great film to enjoy with small children. They’ll find the varied cast of characters immediately endearing and be enthralled by the beautiful artwork. There isn’t the same amount of content for older audiences to enjoy, but they’ll still get a kick from this undeniably well put together film just the same.