A.A. Milne’s stories about beloved, honey-obsessed teddy bear Winnie the Pooh were first adapted by Disney as Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, a 26-minute-long film that combined live action with animation and was personally overseen by Walt himself (his daughters were big fans of the books). The film charmingly introduced moviegoers to the characters from the Hundred Acre Wood and started a robust franchise that would span dozens of feature films, direct-to-video movies, video games, holiday specials, theme park attractions, and television series. Winnie the Pooh is simply unstoppable.
And everything that makes the character (and the larger universe) so enchanting can be summed up in 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, the second feature-length Pooh production from Walt Disney Animation Studios (the first was 1977’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was largely comprised of preexisting material, including Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree). This is an absolute masterpiece, a slender ( it has a 73 minute runtime), elegantly told tale that manages to be fun and light but also evocative and profound. In short: Winnie the Pooh is an instant classic.
Some background on the production of the film: Disney wanted to produce something that was new and Pooh-related, introducing the characters to a whole new generation of children. In the fall of 2009, the new film was announced. Initially it was going to feature older shorts alongside new material, but that approach was ultimately jettisoned. Disney Legend Burny Mattinson, who had worked as an animator on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (and who, at the age of 80, still works at Walt Disney Animation Studios; he’s a credited story artist on Zootopia), served as the Story Supervisor for the new film and was dubbed the studio’s “Pooh guru.” During the movie’s live action opening sequence, the Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy was one that Burny’s wife, Sylvia, had constructed for that earlier film.
Mattinson, along with the film’s directors (Don Hall and Stephen Anderson) and producer (Peter del Vecho) went to England and visited Ashdown Forest, the real-life inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood and the location where Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, would take his stuffed animals to play. “”We thought it would be appropriate to actually go and visit the real place that inspired Milne to write these stories where Christopher Robin used to traipse around,” Hall told the Los Angeles Times in 2011.
You can really feel this affection for the material and attention to detail in the final film, which features Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang, convinced that Christopher Robin has been taken by the terrifying monster the Backson (the characters misread a note Robin leaves behind that tells his toys he’ll be “back soon”). Other subplots involve Eeyore’s missing tail and Pooh’s eternal quest for honey. Simple and effective, for sure, but also rendered with unexpected depth and emotional complexity; the film really makes you feel like a kid again, in an incredibly powerful way.
It’s also beautifully animated, with an all-star assembly of animators giving life to the various characters. Mark Henn, who was responsible for animating Ariel, Belle, Princess Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, and Mulan, animated Winnie the Pooh; Andreas Deja, who animated Gaston, Scar and Jafar, did Tigger; Bruce W. Smith, who did Pacha, Dr. Facilier and created The Proud Family for the Disney Channel, animated Kanga, Roo, and Piglet; Eric Goldberg, famous for the Genie, Phil, Louis, and his amazing segments of Fantasia 2000, did Rabbit and the Backson; and Dale Baer, who animated Yzma, was responsible for Owl. This was like the 1927 Yankees of animation. And they all worked on this one film.
Another incredible aspect of Winnie the Pooh was the music. Music has always been a key part of the animated films’ appeal; “Disneyland Forever,” the fireworks show that debuted as part of the Disneyland Diamond Celebration, features an entire sequence set to “Heffalumps and Woozles,” the insidiously catchy song that backed a nightmare sequence from 1968’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. (The legendary songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman wrote the song, which explicitly references the Elephants on Parade sequence from Dumbo.) And while the original Sherman Brothers “Winnie the Pooh” theme is present (this time sung, adorably, by the indie pop duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward), most of the music for the new film was written by the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who had recently completed work on the Finding Nemo musical for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. (Kristen also voiced Kanga.) And the songs are incredible. Like the rest of the film, they capture the spirit of those original Winnie the Pooh films while also creating something wholly unique and captivating in their own way. Listening to the Winnie the Pooh songs, it’s no surprise that the Lopezes’ next gig for Disney would turn into a worldwide phenomenon. That film was Frozen.
Like the songs from Robert and Kristen Lopez, there are a number of players on Winnie the Pooh team that would go on to even bigger Disney successes in the coming years: composer Henry Jackman would go on to work on Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 (he’d also compose Captain America: The Winter Solider for Marvel); Don Hall co-directed Big Hero 6; del Vecho produced Frozen and is now at work on the sequel; producer Clark Spencer has Zootopia opening next month; and many of the animators are still hard at work at the studio, lending their expertise and artistry to the classics of tomorrow.
Winnie the Pooh is a film positively exploding with warmth, sentiment, and humor. It makes you feel like a kid but is never overtly childish; its sophisticated storytelling was finessed and refined by some of the greatest minds in the industry, embellished by unforgettable songs and characters who evolve while staying recognizable. Even if you’ve seen Winnie the Pooh, it’s worth revisiting. This is a timeless tale that seems to get better and more meaningful as time goes on, just like your favorite childhood plush.