Welcome to the Disney Revival Rundown! This week, we at Rotoscopers are analyzing some of the most recent Disney animated films and looking at what makes each one so great. At the end of the series we will have a fan vote to determine which film is the best of them all!
Winnie the Pooh is one of those neglected films in the Disney animated canon that few have seen (or in this case, even know exists), but should be required viewing. In the story of the Disney Revival, the film doesn’t follow the stylistic progression like the other films chronologically do. On all accounts, it seems to go backward: it’s hand-drawn and it’s sixty-four minutes. And yet, that’s what perhaps makes Winnie the Pooh most endearing: It feels like it comes from a different era. It’s a slice of decades-ago animation, infused with a narrative that does not necessitate CGI, plot twists, flashy visuals, and inappropriate humor to tell a good story. That’s not to advocate against computers; it’s simply to say that Winnie the Pooh does not at all scream 2011. While its release may not have been what Disney (or anyone) expected, it will be looked back on as a special film.
This is in part because the movie was a collaboration of great minds from different periods of Disney history. Its directorial duo was Stephen Anderson, who helmed 2007’s Meet the Robinsons, and Don Hall, who would go on to co-direct 2014’s Big Hero 6. As opposed to the many dissimilarities of those two films, the constant between them, and what is brought to Pooh by both directors, is sincerity of heart. This is complemented by story supervision from Burny Mattinson, whose Pooh roots go back to being an animator on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in 1977. Animators included Disney’s greatest, fresh off work on The Princess and the Frog, including Mark Henn for Pooh and Andreas Deja for Tigger. Musically, the film borrows iconic melodies by the Sherman Brothers and adds new songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who, you probably don’t need to be told, next worked on Frozen‘s Oscar-winning soundtrack. This film has an impressive roster and a unique blend of old and new. Everyone’s resumes shine with brilliance. And yet, Winnie the Pooh is a sorrowed forgotten page of Disney history. Let’s see if we can find out why.
Winnie the Pooh was first announced at the inaugural D23 Expo in 2009. In a mega-weekend that also included major announcements of New Fantasyland and Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, this was the icing on the cake: the continuation of hand-drawn animation. The Princess and the Frog, scheduled for release holiday 2009, would not be Disney’s last foray into this classic medium. Score! Even more interesting, the film would give Walt Disney Animation Studios a swing at something it seldom had the privilege of crafting: a sequel. It’s true there have been dozens of Disney sequels over the years, but almost all of them were developed by DisneyToon Studios, a separate entity from WDAS. Before Pooh, WDAS had just two sequels under its belt: The Rescuers Down Under (1990) and Fantasia 2000. Given the structure of the Hundred Acre Woods, Winnie the Pooh rightfully doesn’t really follow any continual storyline set in motion by its predecessors, but rather serves as a natural ‘further adventures,’ per se. It’s something that coexists with what came before it from WDAS, but dismisses anything that other branches of Disney added to the mix over the years (like Lumpy the heffalump or Darby the little girl).
For Disney, 2011 became the year of the franchise. Its tentpole releases nearly all surged toward a pre-existing set of characters. Among them were Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Cars 2, The Muppets, Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure (a spinoff of the wildly successful High School Musical series), and two Marvel releases (Thor and Captain America) that completed preparation for The Avengers (a guaranteed box-office smash for the following summer). This was a year when, whether intentionally or not, Disney closely examined many of its current properties and experimented with how familiar characters could best be used. Winnie the Pooh‘s first and only trailer, released in November 2010, hinted at an authentic approach, something intended not to reinvent its cast but return them to their original roots, from visual style to screenplay.
For Pooh, the story does not end so happily, for three main reasons. First, the franchise is one that Disney had all but beaten to death to its preschool demographic. 1997 through 2007 saw three theatrical releases, (at least) three direct-to-DVD feature films, and two television series surrounding Pooh and friends, all clearly geared toward the 5-and-under age group. Pooh is one of those evergreen characters that can continually be implemented into new projects because he is a time-tested success, and over the course of the first part of the new millennium became an established staple for Disney’s preschool market. To that target, he is unanimously popular. The problem came in broadening the character’s appeal to an audience that (rightfully) associated him with preschoolers. Winnie the Pooh is modeled after The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a film created with the whole family in mind. The 2011 film is a delightful production that can be appealing across age groups, but did not get the viewership it deserved because of Disney’s struggle to negate the grave it had already dug for the franchise.
However, this was not the only misstep. Winnie the Pooh released to theaters on July 15, 2011, the exact same day as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Yes, the final installment in perhaps the most adored cinematic phenomenon of our generation. Even if both titles had different surface-level audience targets, Disney immediately alienated any potential bigger audience it might have had. As beloved as Pooh is, given the choice, what is the average person going to choose? Harry Potter, every time. This drastically narrowed the potential reach Winnie the Pooh could have.
And then there is, of course, the third argument, whether it is valid or not, that hand-drawn animation does not compete well in a market that has become unaccustomed to it.
All three of these points come together to sadly leave Winnie the Pooh to history. But, I feel the release date is probably the most significant. I really don’t know what the logic was there. What’s disappointing is that this film had the potential to be a game-changer not just for Disney, but for all of animation. If it has become a financial success, it could have led to not only more hand-drawn projects, but projects revitalizing other old characters with WDAS’s level of care. Whatever futures both of these directions could have had was misrepresented by a faulty release date.
Knot Kidding, It’s a Fantastic Film
In the end, Winnie the Pooh received an impressive 90% score from Rotten Tomatoes, but earned just $44 million at the box office and didn’t generate much attention during award season. Pooh and friends have not been used in any significant capacity since, while Disney Animation’s hand-drawn efforts have been limited to short films.
Historical context aside, Winnie the Pooh is a wonderful movie and a true testament to the power of strong character development. The story doesn’t take us to great emotional depths, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, it takes the core of each character’s personality, which at this point are now revered archetypes, and plays to each character’s most endearing qualities. Eeyore and Rabbit, in particular, are perfect. The script is laced with hysterical wordplay, whether coming from Pooh’s misinterpretation of big words or the way the story unfolds in a literal storybook, complete with narrator and text attributing to the action. It’s a brilliant tour de force. The sequence with the characters trapped in the pit is among Disney Animation’s wittiest dialogue; a real riot.
While its historical outcome is disappointing, it does not negate Winnie the Pooh from being a shining point worthy to sit alongside its Disney Revival siblings. It oozes with genuine care from its filmmakers to intentionally take the audience back in time to a place of reverent innocence and inexplicable charm.
What’s your take on Winnie the Pooh, as a stand-alone film and a chess piece of animation history? Where would you rank it in our Disney Revival Rundown?
Blake is a scriptwriter at Elevation Church, where he develops documentary shorts and creative elements as part of the film team. He graduated Appalachian State University studying Electronic Media Production and is an alumni of the Disney College Program. Blake’s favorite films are Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and Toy Story 3. You can find him on Twitter (@blake_242) and visit his blog at blakeonline.com.