The Walt Disney Corporation’s many iterations of Winnie the Pooh—the series of family tales adapted from A.A. Milne’s 1920’s series of stories and poems—have, at this point, begun to blur together. This latest—adapting a brief story from one of Milne’s books into a brief, bright and brisk 68-minute film—starts as the hungry honey-loving bear Winnie (voiced by Jim Cummings) searches for breakfast to soothe his grumbly tummy, digresses as the gang looks for Eeyore’s missing tail and culminates in a search for a mythical beast called the Backson, a search inspired by the misreading of Christopher Robin’s note that he’ll be “back soon.”
But while Winnie the Pooh is small and deliberately retro, it is also carefully and consciously made—there’s a minimum of computer trickery in the animation, and only one pop-culture reference designed to amuse grown-ups escorting their kids. Directors Steven Anderson and Don Hall know the difference between peril and violence, between excitement and tension, between talking quietly to kids and talking down to them. There’s a gentleness in Winnie the Pooh that feels entirely refreshing, especially after the roaring engines and spy-spoof mayhem of Cars 2. At risk of sounding like a hypersensitive guidance counselor (or the kind-hearted but occasionally over-protective Kanga) and all kidding about merchandising literally driving Cars 2 and the Pope-car inside the Popemobile-mobile aside, the level of violence in Cars 2, where we see intelligent, aware beings fall to their destruction and exploded into flames or firing guns as part of the ‘fun’ truly bothered me. I would not take my nieces to Cars 2, or, rather, I would take them but then I would bore them to goddamn death with a very necessary discussion of how violence is bad for all living things, even talking cars, and about how the Cars 2 Queen-car ultimately demonstrated empirically what a silly idea the divine right of kings is.
But there’s nothing in Winnie the Pooh that I’d need to shield them from, or explain, or rationalize—just Pooh and his sleepy voice, and the mopey-but-loved Eeyore (superbly voiced by Bud Luckey), and the omniscient but never superior narrator (John Cleese, patient and pleasant and in on the joke) interacting with the creatures of the 100-Acre Wood as they walk through the trees and fields and through the pages of the book telling their story. You could argue that Winnie the Pooh was in some ways a predecessor to Toy Story—the secret adventures and distinct personalities of a group of stuffed animals brought to life by imagination and wonder—but it’s also a tribute to the power of storytelling, and to the power of love. Owl (comic Craig Ferguson, superbly pompous but never off-putting) may be a know-it-all, and Tigger (Cummings again) may have the bustling bluster of the Cowardly Lion and Piglet (Travis Oates) may be shy and silly, but we appreciate and allow these creatures their flaws because that’s what they do for each other, as a family.
Kristen-Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez provide lovely original songs, some of which are drawled lazily but sweetly by Zooey Deschanel, and the animation is never showy but surprisingly supple—Owl’s nervy song about the Backson is brought to life with moving chalk drawings, and Pooh at one point has a computer-aided trip to a honey-hunger hallucination that plays like part Willy Wonka and part Homer Simpson’s dream-sequence trip to The Land of Chocolate. There’s also a zinging series of faux-fights that never get too rough or raw—bouncy Tigger mock-boxes Eeyore to prepare him for the Backson—and there’s a closing-credits joke that manages to be goofily hilarious and gently touching.
Any child above the age of, say, 8 will potentially be bored by Winnie the Pooh—claiming how the more sophisticated material of Ben 10 or My Little Pony are more to their refined tastes, albeit not in those words—but if they don’t catch you looking, they’ll like it. There’s big gags and silly little moments, zesty Danny Kaye-style wordplay and Marx Brothers-esque absurdity—and while the listing of 8 writers under the “story” credit would normally be a warning sign, this is that rare case when a great number of cooks have made a delightful treat. In an age when the Shrek films make oral sex jokes and Cars 2 flip-flops between tedium and terror, the real pleasure of Winnie the Pooh is that it is a kid’s film that really, truly works for kids.