A.A. Milne, animated films, Barbara Luddy, based on short stories, Buddy Baker, cartoons, childhood favorites, children's movies, Christopher Robin, cinema, classic films, Clint Howard, co-directors, Disney movies, Eeyore, favorite films, film reviews, films, friendships, Gopher, Hal Smith, Howard Morris, Hundred Acre Woods, John Fielder, John Lounsbury, Junius Matthews, Kanga, Movies, multiple writers, nostalgia, Owl, Paul Winchell, Piglet, Rabbit, Ralph Wright, Roo, Sebastian Cabot, Sterling Holloway, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Walt Disney, Winnie the Pooh, Wolfgang Reitherman
If nostalgia is a drug, then nostalgia for the beloved things of one’s childhood must be a triple-dipped, skull-peeling hit of the purest intoxicant in history. We tend to view our childhood favorites through the rosiest of spectacles for many reasons but I like to think that the most prominent is also the simplest: we hold the movies, TV shows, music, pop culture and culinary delights of our childhood up as examples of the pure, undiluted joy that comes from youth. Before we learned to be cynical, snarky and dismissive, before we developed “guilty pleasures” and ironically “liked” things, we were simpler, more naive and quite a bit easier to please. It’s a convenient lie that children are universally accepting of whatever crap is put in front of them: in reality, they’re just a lot less afraid to look like idiots.
Once one is removed from childhood nostalgia by some distance, however, re-examining those childhood loves can be a bit tricky. Fart jokes, inane songs and talking animals are pretty much par for the course with kids’ movies but, several decades down the line, those particular cinematic affectations are a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s tempting to look down at our childhood loves from a more “adult” perspective and laugh at our immaturity while still pining for those innocent, pure emotions of our youth. It’s tempting, of course, but it still does them a disservice. Rather than give these old favorites the equivalent of a golf handicap and a lifetime pass, is it actually possible to re-examine them and determine their respective merits?
As a youngster, I had a set group of rotating favorite films, many of which I would watch not only day after day but, at times, multiple times during the same day. Of these many childhood favorites, few resonated with me as much as Walt Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). If I watched that remarkable little film once during my formative years, I probably watched it at least a hundred, if not a thousand, times. Thirty-some years later, however, would this little gem still mean as much? Is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh nothing but a sad, wistful reminder of a simpler era or does it still possess the same ability to delight modern children as it did those of us who grew up in earlier eras? Is there really a place for the “tubby cubby” in our modern world?
For the uninitiated, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh details the travails of the titular stuffed bear and his woodland friends as they pass the time in their magical home, the Hundred Acres Wood. Created by British author A.A. Milne in the mid-1920s, Pooh and his friends would go on to capture the imagination of generations of children in the fifty-some years between their creation and the vibrant Disney adaptation that we currently discuss, becoming iconic childhood figures along the lines of Paddington Bear, Babar or Charles Schultz’s legendary Peanuts gang.
Characterized by a sweetly philosophical, gentle tone, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the very antithesis of frantic, overly manic kids’ movies, landing somewhere closer to a more subdued version of the aforementioned Peanuts. The adventures detailed here-in are about as far from the complicated machinations of modern animated films as possible: Pooh needs to find honey; Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s door and needs to get out; Owl’s tree falls down and he needs a new home; Tigger needs to find out what, exactly, he’s good at. No self-referential layers of meta-commentary here, nor allusions to popular culture of the era or anything transitory: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh deals with the most basic of emotions and tropes, such as the need to help others, the importance of sharing, the importance of friends, the bittersweet feeling of leaving your childhood loves behind as you get older. While many animated films claim to be for both parents and their children, that’s usually more perfunctory than anything else. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of the few children’s movies that is just as impactful to parents as it is to their progeny…even more, perhaps, similar to the recent Inside Out (2015).
There’s not a lot of chaos here, controlled or otherwise, but the film also doesn’t need it. It’s the difference between listening to an orchestra perform a classical piece or listening to a prog-thrash band ratchet through several time changes in the span of minutes: they both serve their purpose and there’s a time and place for both. A frantic, slapstick pace just doesn’t suit this kind of thoughtful, contemplative material. There’s a reason why Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh became a minor hit upon its release: Milne’s creations may be the single best example of Zen philosophy ever committed to film, animated or otherwise.
How does The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh hold up to other “Golden Era” Disney classics? Remarkably well, as it turns out. The voice-acting is superb across the board: I’ve never imagined Pooh as being voiced by anyone other than Sterling Holloway and I never shall. Likewise for Paul Winchell’s exuberant Tigger, John Fielder’s quivery-voiced Piglet, Junius Matthews’s blustery Owl and Howard Morris’ whistling Gopher. These are the definitive versions of these characters, as definitive as Lugosi’s Dracula or Karloff’s Monster. The songs are strong and, likewise, indelible: I don’t think I’ve ever got “Pooh’s Theme” out of my head since the first time I heard it and the “Heffalumps and Woozles” setpiece stands as my very favorite animated sequence ever, aside from “A Night on Bald Mountain.” And “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers”? Try and get that little worm out of your brain.
The animation style ably mimics the actual illustrated stories, leading to some truly lovely images, not least of which are the many times when the stories bleed back onto the page (and vice versa). Aesthetically, The Many Adventures of Winnie Pooh is easily one of my favorite Disney films: something about the look and style proves as calming, today, as it did back when I was a child. It’s also a perfect example of “form” and “content” meeting in harmonious unity: despite being comprised of three separate stories, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has a flowing sense of continuity that’s practically fluid.
Needless to say, I loved the film as much upon my recent viewing as my prior ones. Stripping away all of my resident goodwill for the movie, however, there’s still that all important question: is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh really a great film or does it just mean a lot to me? With as much impartiality as I can muster, I’m going to come down on the side of a genuinely great film.
For one thing, the film is actually a lot deeper than I gave it credit for when I was growing up. Upon this recent viewing, lots of little details and notions popped out at me that I never really considered before: Pooh is actually a really selfish, self-centered character and kind of a jerk, lovable demeanor or not; Eeyore is clinically depressed, yet completely accepted by his friends; the introduction of Tigger is framed like a horror movie (this was a big revelation, actually); there’s something strangely subversive about Rabbit drawing faces on Pooh’s butt in order to make his derriere fit the accommodations; Eeyore giving Piglet’s house to Owl is a really shitty move but Piglet going along with it is an act akin to sainthood or Communism, whichever you prefer. Like I said before, that’s a lot of subtext for a kids’ movie.
The single most important reason to ascribe greatness to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, however, is also the simplest: 38 years after its release, the film still feels fresh, timeless and like it has something to say. These notions of friendship, sacrifice, unity and melancholy resonate just as much today, if not more: as an adult, I’ve had a chance to live with all of these feelings and emotions for decades and, yet, I relived them all when I sat down to watch the film again. Any film that can consistently make you feel, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, is something special: in every sense of the word, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is special.
As mentioned in the beginning, nostalgia can be a hell of a drug: it can blind us to the inherent deficiencies of things we used to hold dear, reducing any attempt at critical analysis to a simple shrug and “Well, I liked it when I was a kid.” Not all of our past loves will pass the “smell test,” so to speak, especially if we’re being brutally honest with ourselves. When you find a childhood love that does, however, like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, my advice is to hold on to it for dear life. A life without cherished memories like this, you see, is really no life at all.