Entertainment & Arts

Winnie the Pooh returns to animate cinemas

Winnie the Pooh characters
Image caption The stories of Pooh and his friends remain much-loved classics in all formats

After more than 35 years since the original, Walt Disney Animation Studios has released a new Winnie the Pooh movie, inspired by three stories from A A Milne's books.

But why has Winnie the Pooh had such a lasting appeal?

"To us he is exactly what he was to Christopher Robin. He was a favourite toy, but he became more than that - he became a favourite friend, and I think that Pooh was very loyal and a faithful friend," says Mark Henn, supervising animator for the film.

"Both are qualities we recognise and would like to see in our own friends and show to other people, and I think that is a big part of who Pooh is."

It was not always like this though. Walt Disney himself had doubts about his character after the first screening of the first film.

Burny Mattinson, senior story artist, affectionately known as the The Pooh Guru because of his knowledge and work on the original film states.

Image caption The new film's makers enjoyed a day out in Hundred Acre Wood and on Pooh sticks bridge

"I think he appreciated the material, but he didn't know how it was going to look until about two or three quarters of the way through it, and he wanted to see what we had.

"So we had a screening, all the animators were there. He ran it, and he sat at the back of the room. At the end he went out the hall and said 'I don't think the kids are going to really enjoy this type of humour'. In other words there were no big-belly laughs," says Burny.

So they decided to put it out as a 25-minute featurette titled Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966 and used the extra footage to put out Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day in 1969, which went on to win an Academy Award.

'Old friend'

In this latest adventure, Pooh wakes-up hungry, and with no honey in the house he sets out to find some to satisfy the "'rumbly in his tumbly", but his mission is thwarted by a contest to find Eeyore a tail, and save Christopher Robin from an imaginary creature called the Backson.

The movie opens with the classic Winnie the Pooh song which has been given a contemporary feel by singer and songwriter Zooey Deschanel, and the live action opening scene of Christopher Robin's bedroom tells the reader that we are entering the imagination of a little boy.

Winnie the Pooh was inspired by the teddy bear of author and playwright A A Milne's son, Christopher Robin Milne. He was named Winnie after a Canadian black bear at London Zoo. Pooh was the name of a swan that they came across.

The rights to Winnie the Pooh were purchased in the early 1960s by the Walt Disney studios.

Image caption Eeyore is in trouble when he loses his tail

It was the idea of John Lasseter - chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios - to bring Pooh back to the cinema, believing it to be the right time, say Mattinson and Henn.

Lasseter approached directors Don Hall and Stephen Anderson.

"We thought it was a great opportunity to revisit these really beloved characters and get to play with them, play in their world and bring them to today's audience," says Anderson.

And Burny Mattinson was also invited to get on board.

"Since I worked on the original, it is like going back to an old friend. It was just a warm, friendly film that I had worked on for a couple of years, that I'm thrilled to be able to come back to," Mattinson says.

"The directors came to me, knowing that I had been involved in the earlier film, and asked if I go through and find what stories we could use for the picture, and I read the books, and I came up with the three stories that I thought would work."

And with the old school charm of the original Disney featurettes and a faithfulness to A A Milne's tales, this is the Pooh that adults of a certain age will remember.

"Winnie the Pooh is our star. He is the star of the movie. But within this ensemble of very unique characters I would say he is the central figure. He is the anchor. The stabling personality amongst the rather wide variety of personalities," says Henn.

'Counter-programming to Harry Potter'

But this isn't just a cut-and paste job. The producers, directors, animators, and voice actors have put their own stamp on the film. It is the same Pooh in the same hand-drawn art style with the classic watercolour feel, but given a spring clean.

The film is witty, creative, funny, and the character interaction with the narrator and the book text will remind audiences that this is a storybook which has come to life.

The voice cast include Jim Cummings (voice of Pooh and Tigger) who has worked on several of the Winnie the Pooh film and TV animations, and Travis Oates who provides the voice for Piglet.

Image caption Christoper Robin: A reminder of a long-lost simple way of life?

John Cleese is the narrator.

Producer Peter Del Vecho believes Pooh's life lessons and the overall feel to the film will resonate with today's audience.

'What is great about him [Pooh] is that he lives totally in the moment. We tend to get so focused in the future we forget to live in the moment. And Pooh reminds us that it is actually okay not to be the best in any one thing but to have fun.

"There is a time to put down the iPhone, to put down the Wii, and have simple conversations in life and remember our values, and there is something about simple movies like this, as well as books, in sparking the imagination of kids, and it is something we don't do well anymore."

And just like Walt Disney 35 years earlier, Del Vecho attended a preview screening of his film but this time the producer was left with a very different impression.

"I have seen it with audiences who laugh. It is a very funny film. It is a bit counter-programming to the Harry Potters that are out there, but I certainly believe it will be well accepted."

Winnie the Pooh is in cinemas now.

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