I love Winnie the Pooh. Always have, always will. The deceptively simple character created over 90 years ago by A. A. Milne and, indeed, his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood have been a part of my life longer than I can remember. The older I get, and the closer I get to having children of my own, the more I find myself thinking about that silly old bear.
From the children’s stories written by Milne and illustrated by E. H. Shepard, to the 1966 short films by the Walt Disney Company, to the tv show The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, to the Russian equivalent, Vinni Pukh, I am there for all of it. Winnie the Pooh in practically any form is a Winnie the Pooh I am excited to see. And with a new movie coming out this Friday, it’s nice to see Pooh back in the public conversation. However, despite being arguably the most famous Disney character, second only to the Mouse himself, Pooh doesn’t seem to have a massive stake in the company. The question is, why?
Winnie the Pooh: The Icon
I think it’s fair to say that the cast of characters in Winnie the Pooh are iconic. Whether it’s the timid Piglet, the professorial Owl, the persnickety Rabbit, the hyperactive Tigger, the gloomy Eeyore, or the eponymous bear of very little brain, Pooh, these are clear, well-defined, dynamic characters that stand toe-to-toe with anything Disney has ever put to screen. What they lack in imaginative names (really Christopher Robin? You couldn’t think of a better name for an owl than Owl?), they more than make up for with memorable design and charming personality. If they are, as Mary Poppins writer P. L. Travers feared, “just another brick” in the Walt Disney Kingdom, then they represent a keystone on which the empire sits.
It is true that Disney has successfully monetized nostalgia, but the secret to their success has always been their characters. Through sheer imagination or purchase, Disney has created a legacy of instantly recognizable and beloved characters. So why is it, that one of their most iconic characters can’t seem to turn a profit? Sure, if you go to Disneyland, there is a Winnie the Pooh ride. Children will line up to meet the characters. And they can move merchandise like hotcakes, even if it caters almost exclusively to infants and young girls, but their feature films are a different matter.
The Bear of Very Little Brain Returns to the Big Screen
Every twenty years or so, someone comes up with the bright idea to do something with Winnie the Pooh, whether it’s combining the Oscar-winning featurettes into one long narrative, or releasing The Tigger Movie to theaters instead of straight to VHS and DVD as originally planned. And so it was, that in 2009, it was announced that Winnie the Pooh would make a triumphant return to the big screen with the aptly named, Winnie the Pooh.
The results were disastrous. Not critically (the film received a 91% on Rottentomatoes and an A- Cinemascore), but financially, where it grossed a paltry $33 million on its $30 million budget. Another nail in hand-drawn animation’s coffin. But it didn’t need to be this way, and it seems that the project was doomed to fail from the start.
In a baffling case of counter-programing, 2011’s Winnie the Pooh was released on the very same weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. The latter grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide. Not so good for Winnie the Pooh. But even the Bear with very little brains could tell you that grown-ups and children alike were going to see the final Harry Potter movie. What’s even more surprising is that only $6 million came from overseas, suggesting that other countries don’t really care that much for the character.
It was naive to imagine that Pooh’s gentle antics could stand against the might of the boy wizard, and his poor box office performance relegated him to children’s television and painful cameos on Doc McStuffins. Finding a new tail for Eeyore is small potatoes compared to Harry Potter taking on the Dark Lord of All Magic.
And yet, as I mentioned, the film was a critical smash, a breath of fresh air in a summer crammed to the gills with dour superheroes and flashy CG animation. In an era when Disney released Princess stories that claim to subvert the genre, like Frozen and Moana, they released a film that seemed bound and determined to embrace its origins with gentle watercolors, sublime character animation, catchy songs, resonant voice work, charming fourth wall breaking humor, and sparkling dialogue. The film is a triumph. Playful and sincere, just like the hero. ‘Back to the basics’ seemed to be the name of the game, and Winnie the Pooh slipped back into his classic form better than anything else Disney has tried to replicate.
Perhaps that was part of the problem. Only a year earlier, Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3 was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon was a massive success. 2011 saw the release of Rango and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. Amongst these visually exquisite works, Winnie the Pooh must have seemed positively quaint. Which it was.
Small Stakes for the Small Screen
It may be that Winnie the Pooh is a more natural fit for television. What are the kind of conflicts that Pooh faces? He wants honey. Once he ate too much and got stuck in a hole. One time it rained, and the forest flooded. Oh, and remember that time they had to find a tail for Eeyore? And how do these plots resolve? Well, spoilers… his friends give him honey. He waits a bit. He goes to Christopher Robin’s house. And they find one.
Maybe that is Pooh’s greatest weakness. He’s simply too lowkey, his stories too mellow to draw a mass crowd. I think that’s a shame. He is a simpler character, who exists in a simpler time. It’s worth noting that he is one of the only characters Disney hasn’t “messed with.” You will never see Winnie the Pooh trotted out on a t-shirt with his arms crossed and a “hell yeah” look on his face. That Dreamworks grin does not exist in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Winnie the Pooh is not a trend-setter. Nor does he chase trends. He exists as he is, when he is, where he is, and as he is. Winnie the Pooh is a character devoid of snark. Devoid of irony. He is, unquestionably, the most sincere character in the Disney lexicon. A character who exists out of time.
As I’ve stated, the secret to Disney’s success is in their characters, but Pooh and friends exist in a sub-category all their own. It’s very tempting to mock the characters and talk about how Eeyore is depressed, how Tigger has ADHD, and how Pooh is addicted to “honey,” but that misses the point, and is entirely unworthy of the world Milne and Disney created.
Pooh exists in a judgement-free zone, where compassion and acceptance are rewarded, and prejudice is lightly punished. Yes, the characters have their faults. Piglet is small and frightened, and Owl is a know-it-all, and yes, Pooh is jonesing for that honey pretty bad, but their faults are always embraced. No one ever tells Eeyore to quit being so gloomy. They understand that’s who he is and embrace it with good cheer. When Rabbit insists on punishing Tigger for his excessive bouncing, it is Rabbit who suffers and learns to be less of a stick in the mud. These traits may not be unique to Winnie the Pooh, but it is certainly where the series excels, possibly more than any other franchise. It is a worthy trait, though maybe not one that brings big box office results… until now.
A Bumpy Return to Relevancy
Christopher Robin came out this weekend and presented Winnie the Pooh as you’ve never seen him before… in live-action, just the latest in Disney’s recent trend of live-action retellings of their classic animated films, but with a twist. Christopher Robin is a whole new adventure. This is not a retread like Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, or the upcoming Dumbo, or Aladdin, nor is it an alternative history retelling like Maleficent. This film will be its own story, and I’m fine with that.
It’s taken a number of compromises to get Pooh back to theaters. For one thing, the runtime has almost doubled (from a brisk 63 minutes to a standard one hour, 44 minutes). The characters will not be interacting with the book, a unique quality of the ‘77 and ‘11 films. And in its place are car chases and dynamic action. And you know what else has come with it? An audience.
The film came out to decent reviews and modest box office results. Despite opening second to Mission Impossible: Fallout in its second week of release, the film managed to rake in $27 million. While that may not seem like an achievement, it has already bested the previous film’s entire box office run in three days. Why should this film be so popular when the other was not? What changed? Is it the star power of Ewan McGregor? Has Paddington whetted the audience’s appetite for talking bear movies? I think the answer is a little more complicated than that.
Last Word on Winnie the Pooh’s Place in 2018
The year is 2018. Things are bleak. Donald Trump is president. Anthony Bourdain is dead. Children are torn from their mother’s arms and locked away in cages. American democracy is under attack by a foreign adversary. Civil liberties are constantly endangered. Roe v Wade is dangerously close to being overturned. And every day, we are encouraged to judge, point fingers, and fear.
But 2018 is also the year of kindness. This is the year of Mr. Rogers and Paddington, and yes, Winnie the Pooh. Art is often a reflection of the time in which it is made. The world needed The Beatles in the ’60s. We needed Star Wars after Vietnam. We needed Spider-man and Harry Potter after 9/11.
We have forgotten that we are stronger for what we love, than what we fear. I think we’ve all become Christopher Robin, buried in adult responsibilities and anxieties. And just as in the film, Winnie the Pooh, the gentle, reliable, silly, old bear, has come to remind us of who we are inside, and what’s important. It is time we reach out to our neighbors with love in our hearts and maybe a pot of hunny. I don’t know if we needed Winnie the Pooh in 2011, but we need Christopher Robin now.
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