I can vividly recall Disney’s animated Winnie the Pooh stories from the 1960s and ’70s: “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too,” and so forth. What I remember most about them are the storybooks and records that tied in with them, with the distinctive voice of Sebastian Cabot as the narrator and Sterling Holloway as Pooh. The stories were so simple and charming, the characters distinct but gentle. They were meant to come from the imagination of a child, Christopher Robin, and they always seemed like they could have done just that.
And while Disney has bastardized, ruined, and sold out pretty much all of its other properties, the bedeviled corporation has somehow managed not to sully the good name of Winnie the Pooh. The most recent theatrical films — “The Tigger Movie” and “Piglet’s Big Movie” — had their missteps but generally kept the spirit alive, albeit in a weakened condition.
Now here is “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie,” another fine addition to the canon and a delightful little movie in its own right. Nothing has been modernized (no more rapping for Tigger after “The Tigger Movie,” thank goodness), there’s nothing subversive, there are no fart jokes. It’s just good ol’ Pooh and his whimsical little friends.
The story begins with the residents of the Hundred-Acre Wood being awakened by the elephantine trumpeting of what they presume to be a heffalump, one of the dreaded creatures who live in the forest beyond the borders of the Wood. Just as in “The Village,” Pooh and company have a tacit agreement with whatever lives in that forest: You don’t come in here, and we won’t go in there.
But when heffalump footprints are discovered within the Hundred-Acre Wood, everyone gets panicky and decides they should venture into the forest to investigate. Rabbit is the leader but is no less cowardly about it than, say, Tigger. Pooh is blithely calm, as usual, and Piglet stammers and worries, also as usual. They all interact amusingly, with Eeyore serving as their pack mule. (As usual, Eeyore gets most of the best lines.)
Young Roo wants to join them but is told he is too young. “A heffalump expedition is fraught with danger!” Rabbit warns, and Tigger adds, “You just can’t argue with a word like ‘fraught.'”
Roo goes off on his own, then, and meets the heffalump first. The heffalump in question is a baby elephant with an adorable cockney voice and an infectious giggle. I want to tell you, he is probably the cutest li’l cartoon character you’ll ever see. He is 10 pounds of cute in a five-pound bag. He and Roo become friends and sing songs together. (The songs in this film, of which there are several, are entirely forgettable and obligatory, unfortunately.)
The animation, under the supervision of director Frank Nissen, is fluid and energetic, a cut above many of Disney’s low-end products, which often appear no better than a Saturday-morning cartoon. They seem to have put some effort into this one, rather than just cranking it out and shoving it into theaters.
Everything in the story turns out fine in the end, of course, with everyone learning not to be afraid of the unknown or of creatures who are different from them. As is often the case, I suspect it’s the adults who need to hear this message more than the kids do, since kids are pretty accepting anyway. Luckily, there will probably be some adults in the audience, too, recalling their own childhoods and enjoying another brief stay in the Hundred-Acre Wood.
B+ (1 hr., 8 min.; )