HUNDRED ACRE WOOD, ASHDOWN FOREST, SUSSEX, ENGLAND - When A.A. Milne first conceived of "Winnie the Pooh" as a story for his young son Christopher Robin, he couldn't have foreseen that the honey loving bear would be delighting children almost a century later? Happily for Disney and Milne's estate, not only are kids still interested in Pooh and his friends Tigger, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore and Kanga, among others. And while toys and books featuring Winnie can still be found in kids rooms across the world, it's been quite awhile since Milne's creations got the respect they deserve on the big screen.
Beginning in 1966, Walt Disney released a series of short film adaptations of "Winnie the Pooh" which became the accepted style of Milne's characters. Those shorts were collected into a 1977 film "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," but the characters didn't return to theaters until 2000 with "The Tigger Movie." "Piglet's Big Movie" and "Pooh's Heffalump Movie" followed, but these three were drawn overseas outside the hands of the classic Disney animators when the company was more focused on the eventual DVD sale. That's changed with this summer's "Winnie the Pooh."
A complete production of Walt Disney Studios Animation, the feature film was brought to life by a number of veterans from the company's last golden age, the 1990s. At Walt Disney's invitation, I was able to walk the Hundred Acre Wood in England which inspired so many of Milne's stories before speaking to a few of the great animators who lent their talents to "Pooh." A good 90 minutes (or more) outside of central London, this area of the English countryside hasn't changed much and the hills and paths in the woods are remarkably similar to the drawings by E. H. Shepard in Milne's books. Moreover, local residents have left clues for tourists and local kids that you might be peeking into Eeyore's gloomy place or found the tree that hold up Owl's house. And in a 21st Century twist, I was even able to check in at Poohsticks bridge on Facebook. Who knew?
The real stars of the visit, however, were the incredibly talented artists who Disney has brought back into the fold with their renewed commitment to hand-drawn animation. First up was character animator Andreas Dejas who has worked on such classics as "Beauty and the Beast" (Gaston) and "The Lion King" (Scar). For "Winnie" he was responsie for the always energetic Tigger. While he discussed how difficult it was to live up to the old films magic, Dejas drew me my own original Tigger drawing. I was gorgeous…until my own Tigger (well, Sookie) decided it would be her own little toy.
Of all the animators on "Pooh," Mark Henn had the biggest responsibility, bringing Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robbins to life. After having leading ladies such as Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," Princess Jasmine from "Aladdin" and the title character of "Mulan" to his credit, the relatively short nine to 10 month production schedule didn't phase him. Moreover, he reveals that it's the pleasant shape of Winnie that makes him so fun to draw and how they pushed the character further than he'd been used before. But, if audiences watch Winnie and think they are seeing the classic character they saw on screen years ago, he'll be more than satisfied with his contributions.
Co-directors Don Hall and Stephen J. Anderson, best known for collaborating on "Meet the Robinsons" as screenwriter and director, were brought on board the project by Pixar and Disney Animation guru John Lassiter. They knew they wanted to return to the style of the original featurettes and make sure the characters weren't dramatically different than what the parents of today remembered from their own youth. They also revealed that by changing the voices a bit, they could play with the characters of Owl and Rabbit and update them a bit. Enter Craig Fergueson to voice Owl in a slightly more manic persona and Tom Kenny who made Rabbit a bit less neurotic than he was in previous incarnations. Also on their agenda was updating the music. So, surprisingly, Zooey Deschanel came on board to sing three songs. It's one modern element parents will certainly appreciate in the new endeavor.
You can find out much more about the creative process on "Winnie the Pooh" by checking out the interviews embedded in this post.
Everyone's favorite golden bear will have to battle "Harry Potter" for movigoers honey when it debuts this Friday in wonderful old 2D. For more on "Winnie the Pooh," check out Drew McWeeny's review.