Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays, you’ll find the enchanted neighborhood of Christopher’s childhood days…
A donkey named Eeyore is his friend. And Kanga, and little Roo. There’s Rabbit, and Piglet, and there’s Owl. But most of all, Winnie the Pooh.
When we were very young, we had a slew of VHS cassettes of Disney movies, most of the usual ones. But there were four beside the giant clamshells I always loved: the original four featurettes of Winnie the Pooh from 1966 to 1983. This year, we are going to see yet another reboot, live action, as the trend goes, starring these plush friends in Christopher Robin, set to be released this August, and I gotta tell you, I’m stoked.
I want to review all of these someday, but I want to start with these four half-hour films to celebrate the film’s release. And of course, the story of Winnie the Pooh is long and storied. So this article is dedicated to the evolution of Pooh.
Alan Alexander Milne was a playwright above all else. He wrote over thirty plays, but his fame will forever be connected to the teddy bear that was a prized possession of his real-life son, Christopher Robin. The toy was originally named Edward Bear, but his name came from three sources:
1. A Canadian Black Bear at the London zoo named Winnipeg (Where the Bear was adopted) or “Winnie” for short.
2. “Pooh”, an expression of dismissal, a name bestowed by Christopher Robin to a swan in the park. The logic went that if you called, and he didn’t come, well…just pretend you weren’t interested anyway.
3. “The”…no one really knows for sure. In one of the opening pages of 1926’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin corrects the narrator (Presumably Milne himself) by saying “He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. He’s a boy, isn’t he?” So…there?
Pooh’s first appearance was under the name Edward in the 1924 book When we were Very Young, and was modeled off of artist E. H. Shepherd’s son’s toy bear. But it wasn’t until the 1926 collection of short stories where we got got to see the bear we know and love today. Two other books, The House at Pooh Corner and Now We Are Six, cap off Pooh’s time as a product of Milne, and his stories remained a staple of British Children’s novels for decades.
The Enchanted Neighborhood
Of course, Pooh wasn’t Christopher Robin’s only toy. Over time, Milne added to his son’s toy collection. A kangaroo and her joey. A tiny pig. A donkey. And a tiger. My favorite tidbit was learning that the donkey lost the stiffness in his neck, and his low-hanging head made him look gloomy. Surprisingly, Pooh, Kanga, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger are still around to this day at the Donnell Library Center in New York City.
As far as their home, the famous Hundred Acre Wood, is real, although it’s known as the Ashdown Forest, which is right next to Milne and Shepherd’s Sussex estate. There even is an official “Poohsticks” bridge there!
Is Anybody at Home?
Milne died in 1956, and he consented to the rights being used by a handful parties, including a man named Stephen Slesinger in 1930, who utilized Pooh in numerous projects, from radio to toys and more. But after his death in 1953, his widow sold the rights to the Walt Disney company in 1961. Walt himself was interested and was set and determined to make Winnie the Pooh the next big, grand musical animated feature…but there was only one small problem: Despite Slesinger’s lucrative marketing endeavors, Pooh was not as recognized in America as he was in Britain. Not to mention the stories were devoid of the kind of conflict suited to an hour and a half-long feature film. The answer? Making a handful of featurettes, and eventually combining them for a whole feature, much like the package films of the 1940’s. The songwriting team behind Mary Poppins, Robert and Richard Sherman, were contracted to write the music for the world of Pooh Bear.
In February of 1966, the first of these, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, was released. It was also the only Pooh project completed during Walt’s lifetime, since he passed away eleven months later. It starred Disney veterans Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat, Kaa, and more) as Pooh, Bruce Reitherman (Mowgli) as Christopher Robin, Junius Matthews (Archimedes) as Rabbit, Barbara Luddy (Lady, Merryweather) as Kanga, and Clint Howard (Hathi Junior) as Roo.
Two years later, the second featurette, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, was released, which not only introduced both Piglet and Tigger, but also won an Academy Award for best short subject. 1974 brought about the third short, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, capitalizing on their well-received new character. It received a nomination for best short subject. And true to Walt’s plan, the three cartoons were compiled together into a full-length feature with some extra animation linking them together. This became The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in 1977. Yup, the same year Star Wars came out.
We’re going on an expotition!
And the year Return of the Jedi came out, Pooh got a new lease on life with a new theatrical short, Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore, and he became one of the first Disney characters to get his own in TV show, Welcome to Pooh Corner. The show was unique in that it used “puppetronics”, full-sized character costumes that blinked and moved their mouths. The creator of the costumes, Ken Forsse, would later go on to create the Teddy Ruxpin dolls. And yes, there really is an anti-stranger danger/child molester PSA episode, called “Too Smart for Strangers”.
But the gang got a renewed lease in 1988 with The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. They continued to appear on TV in 2001 with Book of Pooh (Which combined traditional Japanese bunraku puppetry computer animated backgrounds.) and 2007 with My Friends Tigger and Pooh (where Christopher Robin was replaced by a girl named Darby and was the first time Pooh and company were rendered in CGI.).
Strangely enough, Pooh wouldn’t get a ride at the Disney parks until 1998 at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It replaced the long-standing favorite Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and became known as one of the first protested ride closures at the Disney parks. Three years later, both Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland received their own Pooh rides, with Tokyo’s the one worth the most envy due to its trackless ride system.
And while there have been numerous video games that feature Pooh and his friends, arguably his most beloved appearance was starting in 2002 in Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts series.
Pooh Oughta be in Pictures
For the first time since 1977, Pooh got a full-length film in 1996 called Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin. Unlike Many Adventures, it was released as a direct-to-video feature. It was made to be a unofficial sequel to the original movie, but a theatrical movie wouldn’t join the pantheon of Pooh films until 2000’s The Tigger Movie. The movie was seen as a return to form, especially since the Sherman brothers were called in to write more music for the film, since the last time they did so was for Blustery Day in 1968.
Piglet got his own theatrical release in 2003 with Piglet’s BIG Movie, followed up with Pooh’s Heffalump Movie in 2005. There were many other direct-to-video releases, naturally, and unlike other Disney properties, Pooh appealed largely to small children. He was a popular and lucrative property, to be sure, and didn’t have to follow any true canon, but his appeal to adults was a tough but to crack. Even in 2011, when Disney rebooted the franchise with Winnie the Pooh, and it received nearly-universal praise, it still made only $50 million…on a $30 million budget. Oh well, maybe everyone was too busy watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: part two, which was released the same day.
And that leads us up to today, where amid all the live action reboots, Pooh of course gets his own release. Will it be successful? I hope so. Pooh deserves the best.
Winnie the Pooh isn’t about toys coming to life or silly misunderstandings or anything like that. Pooh is simplicity. Childhood nostalgia. Friendship. Kindness. Family. As a kid, I loved these silly characters who were always doing fun things that weren’t fighting bad guys, like a lot of other cartoons I watched, but just engaging the world around them. As an adult, I can appreciate how easy and uncomplicated things are in their world. They get by purely on the friendship and kindness of others, a concept that sometimes feels lost in today’s world.
As I write this, I still have five months before the movie comes out, and I’m just as excited for this movie as I am for Avengers: Infinity War. I was excited for the 2011 movie, and that turned out to be a monumental disappointment. But I remain hopeful, if cautiously optimistic. I mean, it stars Ewan McGregor and Haley Atwell, so I’m very interested.
T-T-F-N. Ta ta for now.