Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jul 17, 2011 4:51 pm 
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Silly old bear

"Silly old bear": does that ring a bell? If it does, then you may not need to see this movie. If it's unfamiliar to your child, you may take her to see it.

Though Pooh had appeared earlier in the English writer A.A. Milne's poems, the little teddy bear came to popular life in his Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), which was rapidly followed by the verses Now We are Six (1927), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). They were instant bestsellers. Milne stopped writing them after those three, wanting to protect his son, Christopher Robin (whom he'd made a central character in the stories), from all the publicity the books were producing. But though Milne lived on till 1956, these were the works he was to be famous for henceforth.

So Milne's Pooh books have been beloved children's (and adults') stories for a long time, and "Pooh," the little roly poly teddy bear come to life with a passion for honey and a selfless dedication to his gloomy friend Eeore, has had many representations in popular art, including movies, but this new one is truer -- by intention and sometimes in fact -- to the literal text of Winnie the Pooh and the original (and equally well-loved) illustrations by Ernest A. Shephard. Physically faithful, since the characters often climb onto the pages of the book, where we can see the illustrations and very pages printed with the words they are speaking at that moment. Sometimes the letters of the printed words come to three-dimensional life independent of the page itself, as when they fall into a hole where Pooh and his friends are trapped and resourceful Pooh climbs up the stacked letters, using them as a ladder, followed by his friends. This ingenious self-reflexiveness and concern with the printed word notwithstanding, Winnie the Pooh doesn't particularly strive for cleverness, cuteness, or up-to-date-ness but rather succeeds simply by delivering much of what A.A. Milne offered: a cozy little story about a little boy called Christopher Robin and a group of toy animals, Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, Heffalump, Kanga and Roo, and the rest, who come to life.

There has already been an astonishing number of Pooh movies. Some titles are Winnie the Pooh's Most Grand Adventure; Winnie the Pooh: Springtime with Roo (2004); Pooh's Heffalump Movie; Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968); Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966); The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977); Winnie the Pooh: A Very Pooh Year (2002). If these are unfamiliar to you, it's because as an adult who may or may not have enjoyed the books (which are on the shelf to read any time we want to return to their world), such endless variations and reworkings seem largely irrelevant. Winnie the Pooh has been translated into many languages -- there's even a version in Latin, Winne ille Pooh. What we have here, low-key though it may be, is an almost endless franchise.

In this new version from Disney, whose simple title declares its intention of sticking more closely to the character and the books, many of the voices are, however, recycled from earlier Disney productions. The most we can say is that the drawing isn't quite as far from the originals as in the past. But the story line is very close to the original. This new version is more literary and less cutesy than most of its predecessors, and that is in keeping with the minimalism and good taste of the original books. This is a nice little film for children. It hasn't a whole lot to offer for adults.

But it has some things. Craig Ferguson is fluent as the pompous, pedantic Owl, who sets a linguistic standard none of the others can rise to, but himself is deceived by the note from Christopher Robin saying he will be "Back soon." They are all off hunting for an evil monster called "Backsun." None of them can spell, as we see from various notes they write, and this includes Christopher Robin, who being a boy and not a toy animal, must have a little education. The narrative is simple, though the fun is all in the digressions. Eeyore wakes up having lost his tail ("tael" they spell it). Pooh sets out to find a replacement. Along the way he's distracted by a growling, jumpy tummy that makes him terribly hungry for honey. In the end, no tacked-on substitutes having sufficed, he finds a solution to the problem of the missing appendage at the entrance to Owl's house in a tree. When the last page comes, Pooh is off in the distance searching for honey -- though he has nearly drowned in a big jar of it already. This blends a couple of Milne's stories together, but it has none of the richness or emotional heart-tugs of Pixar tales like Up or Toy Story (its charm is its gentleness and unpretentiousness, which could be said of the original books). In compensation the film is (for impatient adults or fidgety children) blessedly short, barely over an hour.

Monty Python's John Cleese is the narrator, and some trite little songs are delivered in an appropriately saccharine voice by Zooey Deschanel. Bud Luckey (Chuckles in Toy Story 3), delivers the mournful moans of Eeyore (too bad it's not William Hurt, whom he sounds a little like). Most of the voices are delivered by journeymen: there is not the plethora of famous names we get in many of today's animated features. Here, modesty reigns, and rightly so. I was not excited, but I felt that for once a literary classic was respected rather than travestied.

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