The beloved character of Winnie the Pooh is the creation of author and humorist A.A. Milne, who was born in 1882 in London and was largely inspired by his son (the real life Christopher Robin) and his interaction with a Canadian bear named Winnie at the London Zoo. (Other characters like Eeyore were inspired by Christopher Robin’s many toys.) The first chapter of what would eventually become the book Winnie-the-Pooh was published on Christmas Eve, 1925, in the London Evening News, and immediately captured the attention of audiences. It was followed by two books and additional stories, all authored by Milne. The character was beloved. Both children and adults were captivated.
Milne had a relationship with Walt Disney before the rights to Pooh were purchased: The animated adaptation of The Wind in the Willows is highly indebted to Toad of Toad Hall, Milne’s theatrical adaptation. And the effort to obtain the rights to both Toad Hall and Pooh started immediately after the success of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney artists admired the story and illustrator E.H. Shepard’s artwork, but Walt kept a low profile as he doggedly chased down the property, reigniting his pursuit in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and finally securing the rights in 1961.
Walt decided to begin with a series of 26-minute featurettes to introduce Pooh to film-going audiences. For the first film, Walt and his collaborators turned to the first two chapters of the first book Winnie-the-Pooh (“In which we are introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and some honey Bees, and the stories Begin” and “In which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place”). Frank Thomas, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men, said that Walt sidestepped assigning the project to Pooh enthusiasts like himself, Milt Kahl, and Ollie Johnston, because he worried that they would “stay too close to the book and that, I suppose he thought, would make for something too precious.” Thomas agreed and added: “I think Walt was keen to turn the material into something that would be recognizable as a Disney movie.”
Wolfgang Reitherman, whom, Christopher Finch notes in his indispensable book Winnie the Pooh: A Celebration of the Silly Old Bear, animated Monstro the Whale in Pinocchio and directed Sword in the Stone (he had a producing and/or directing credit on all Disney animated films until The Fox and the Hound), was tasked with directing the first Pooh project, entitled Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. Reitherman was tasked with making the material identifiably Disney, and was flanked with experienced collaborators like Ken Anderson, Larry Clemmons, Basil Davidovich, Al Dempster, Hal King, John Sibley, Eric Cleworth, and Xavier Atencio (the last of which, many will know as one of the chief architects of The Haunted Mansion), who worked alongside Nine Old Men Eric Larson and John Lounsbery. Richard and Robert Sherman, even then legendary, were assigned to handle songwriting duties, with Buddy Baker doing the incidental music.
As Finch points out, the team faced a number of challenges, including modifying the original Shepard drawings for Disney animation while still maintaining the essential style, and translating the playful A.A. Milne verbal humor into visual equivalents. (Shepard illustrated every literary Pooh story and these drawings, with their hatched style, became intrinsically linked to the character.) Also, there was the matter of the Englishness of the material.
Shepard’s style was bold and unforgettable, but not as easily adaptable for animation. His backgrounds were full of broken lines and the kind of crosshatching you’d expect from comic books from the 1970s. The other challenge was creating a fully dimensional version of each character, since they would be have to be in a number of poses and be seen from varying angles, instead of just the one pose they’d had on the page of the book. The team’s approach was to give the silhouette more definition than rely heavily on texture, with the backgrounds being faithfully reproduced in a watercolor style.
Pooh himself ended up being a surprisingly difficult character to animate, since he had to come across as an actual teddy bear (with that kind of stiffness) and a living, breathing character, with the animators erring on the side of more fluid movements. “If the Disney Pooh is compared with the Shepard Pooh, it will be seen that a subtle degree of articulation has been built into the limbs,” Finch writes. Later, he added: “One additional way in which the Disney Pooh differed from the Shepard version is that he was given a shrunken red T-shirt to wear.” This embellishment, however, has historical precedence: it’s is based on the Pooh bears sold at F.A.O. Schwartz in New York in the ‘40s and ‘50s and based on a chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh, where Pooh wears a shirt to shield himself against the cold.
One of the best visual gags in the incredibly charming film, in which Rabbit must help Pooh unstick himself from a window (too much honey takes its toll), but first decorates his rear end with a potted plant turns into a moose head, was conceived by Walt Disney himself. In the original story, Rabbit simply hangs his laundry from the Pooh’s posterior.
Following the difficult process of adapting Alice in Wonderland, another beloved English children’s story that was defined by a similarly playful wit, Walt was also concerned with how British Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree would be. Christopher Robin was given an American accent (courtesy of director Wolfgang Reitherman’s son, Bruce) and the character of Gopher, who didn’t appear in the original stories, was added to the cast.
To Finch’s reading, since Gopher is presented as an “entrenched local resident.” His appearance suggests that the film is set in America. (Finch also points to the Americanized house Christopher Robin lives in, and the locomotive toy on his floor.) But the featurette is also quite faithful to the material, especially in its depiction of the storybook land that the characters inhabit. The art style, too, retains the essence of the original character and the setting, while also making it more dimensional and, of course, more Disney.
The featurette was released theatrically in February 1966, with the live-action Dean Jones comedy The Ugly Dachshund, and it was an immediate success. It is a testament to the power of that original featurette that so much of the iconography and key scenes from it are still used today (particularly in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction at Disneyland). This was most likely due to both the magical alchemy of the creative team Walt assembled, and the fact that the source material was so inherently lovable. (It probably also benefited from being the only Pooh animated project that Walt himself was personally involved in; his contributions cannot be overstated.) Soon enough, though, it was time to head back to the Hundred Acre Wood. An early advertisement for the second film (another 25-minute-long featurette) said “Hip Hip Pooh-ray!” Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day was on its way.