Winnie the Pooh

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As beloved as A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books are, there’s little question that most of the people currently living were first exposed to the characters through Walt Disney’s adaptations of them. If a new Pooh flick is to succeed with viewers, it has to capture the spirit of those cartoons from the 1960s and ’70s, and not necessarily the spirit of the books. (Fortunately, the two spirits are pretty similar.) Pooh’s gentle, friendly voice, the familiar theme song, the simple animation — that’s where the nostalgia is.

I am pleased to report that the new feature, simply titled “Winnie the Pooh” (ditching the hyphens was the most serious change Disney made to the Milne formula), recreates the look and feel of the old cartoons about as faithfully as could be expected, given the deceased nature of most of the original voice cast. Knowing the Disney company, I assume they were tempted at some point to produce a hip, 21st-century Pooh — Pooh the Xtreme! — with a jive-talking Rabbit and a skateboarding Tigger, all produced with computers and shown in 3D and featuring a soundtrack by Maroon 5. But any such temptations were repressed. What we have instead is hand-drawn animation, jaunty songs, an uncomplicated story, and a sweetly child-like sense of humor and wonderment. In short: classic Pooh.

You will recognize the elements of the plot immediately. Pooh (voice of Jim Cummings), dangerously addicted to honey, cannot find any in his home and goes looking to “borrow” some from his neighbors. Eeyore (Bud Luckey), the clinically depressed donkey, has lost his tail, so all the inhabitants of the Hundred-Acre Wood try to find a suitable replacement. Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter) is gone for the day but has left a note, which the animals misunderstand, sending them on a quest to rescue their pal from a nonexistent forest monster. Tigger (Jim Cummings again), the Kramer figure in this universe, tries to teach Piglet (Travis Oates) how to be a Tigger too. Owl (Craig Ferguson) talks smarter than he is, Rabbit (Tom Kenny) is flustered, Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez) and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall) serve as good-natured background — you know the routine.

This is a children’s movie in the purest, most magical sense, appealing to the under-8 crowd by talking to them at their level. The conceit is that these are tales manufactured by Christopher Robin as he plays with his stuffed animals; hence, no one is any more mature or sophisticated or worldly-wise than a little boy would be. The narrator (John Cleese) is the only adult influence on this play-world, and he treads lightly, setting our friends back on course gently and only when asked. There are no glaring of-the-moment pop-cultural references to date the film, nothing that will remind you, 20 years from now, that it was made in 2011. (Unless you look at the credits, I suppose: Zooey Deschanel sings the classic theme song; the new tunes were written by Robert Lopez, a Tony-winner for “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon.”) There is only sincerity and joy.

As a kid, I thought the Pooh characters’ awareness that they are in a book, going so far as to interact with the typography on the pages, was about the niftiest thing in the world. I’m happy that device has been retained, because it’s still awfully neat. Rabbit doesn’t have a very large role in the story (and his voice doesn’t sound right to me), and none of the songs are instant classics like “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers,” but you can’t have everything, can you?

Apart from one or two sly references, the movie makes almost no attempt to include material specifically for the adults in the audience — and the adults in the audience who have fond memories of previous animated Pooh adventures will find that attitude all the more appealing. How could you be transported back to your childhood if you were constantly being peppered with jokes that only the adult you would understand? In a way, it doesn’t matter that the film is just for kids. When it does its job right, everyone watching it is a kid.

[Reprinted from Film.com.]

A- (1 hr., 8 min.; G, perfectly mild.)

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