If you had asked a well-read British person before the 1920s what A.A. Milne would be remembered for, odds are good that the reply would involve his plays and writing for Punch magazine. You would probably be met with laughter if you’d said Milne’s enduring gift to Western Civilization would be a Silly Old Bear and the adventures he and his friends had in the Hundred Acre Wood. But history almost never turns out the way we expect, and regardless of his other contributions to the literary world, everybody today associates Milne with Winnie the Pooh.
In the 1960s, Walt Disney embarked on a project to animate Milne’s famous stories, which ultimately led to three of the most beloved animated short films ever to grace the medium. Those shorts—stitched together into the continuous movie they were always intended to be—form the core content of Disney’s latest animated DVD, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: The Friendship Edition. The long title covers up a short punchline: these cartoons are classic for a reason, and the DVD restores them to their proper luster.
The Winnie the Pooh shorts were among the last animated films that had Walt’s personal touch. Disney himself passed away between the release of the first in 1966 (“Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree”) and the second in 1968 (“Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day”). They are definitely some of the most charming and well-made animated shorts that the Disney studios have ever released. Of course, much of this charm comes from the original source material by Milne, which the Disney crew adapted marvelously. It’s true that they meander around nearly aimlessly, bouncing from one incident to the next, but that simply makes them rather like their lead character. Complaining about the lack of narrative drive would seem to miss the point. We are also treated to the wonderfully gentle voice work of Sterling Holloway as Pooh, joined by the hyperactive Paul Winchell as Tigger and the wonderfully glum and morose Ralph Wright as Eeyore. The addictive songs by Richard and Robert Sherman certainly don’t hurt, although you may be begging for mercy by the time the Winnie the Pooh theme pops up on the DVD for the tenth time.
The really remarkable thing about these early Winnie the Pooh shorts is how hand-made they feel. Close observation of the animation will often reveal what look like rough pencil lines and ever-so-slightly ragged tweening frames. Those rough edges do not detract from the animation at all, of course. Instead, they lend the shorts an incredible amount of character, especially when compared to the perfectly shaped surfaces of 3-D CGI, or even the polished, glossy linework of other hand-drawn 2-D animated films. The small imperfections aren’t flaws as much as they’re fingerprints of the dozens of animators who worked on the shorts.
In hindsight, it’s also interesting to see how the shorts changed over time. While the earliest short incorporates several sight gags that center on the fact that Pooh is really a stuffed toy, we are thankfully spared the sight of things like Pooh’s head spinning all the way around his body Exorcist-style or sewing himself back up after splitting a seam. Similarly, a very Americanized gopher that seems lifted from Lady and the Tramp pops up for excessively broad slapstick comedy and an in-joke by declaring, “I’m not in the book.” His role diminishes to nothing after the first short as well. There are also some slightly odd experiments, like the surreal dream sequence during “Blustery Day” that was obviously inspired by the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence of Dumbo.
Disney’s restoration department has been criticized in the past for “over-restoration,” removing too much dust and scratches or replacing nuanced color palettes with harsher, more garish tones. However, few will be able to complain about the restoration work with the Friendship Edition DVD. The restoration retains the shorts’ familiar earth-tone color palette and cleans up just enough of the dust and scratches to make the shorts look terrific on a modern-day TV screen. The unrestored films shown in the making-of featurette look shockingly weathered in comparison.
Disney has included a solid set of extras for this DVD release. The first is the 1983 “A Day for Eeyore” short, which is another gem that nearly perfectly captures the charm of the original shorts. Just having all the theatrically released Pooh cartoons in one place makes this DVD an invaluable resource for the serious Pooh or Disney animation collector. There is also a short behind-the-scenes featurette from 2001 about Pooh’s long history from literary character to animated icon. It is fluffy but informative, and would be worth a look just to hear Paul Winchell slip in and out of his Tigger voice. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing Slesinger lawsuit goes entirely unmentioned, although one might claim that it was left out because the case has grown so thoroughly incomprehensible. A pop cover of the Pooh theme song is the obligatory music video for this DVD, but luckily it’s performed by Carly Simon rather than the usual teen dreamboat or boy band of the moment. Simon also provided the music for the delightful Heffalump movie, although one might wish that her vocals and guitar were not quite as overproduced with unnecessary overdubs and accompanying instruments. There is a “pop-up trivia” track which is largely a waste of time. Several DVD games and an art gallery are also included.
The last extra on the disc is the one that will probably draw catcalls and boos in advance: a full episode of the My Friends Tigger and Pooh show. After watching it, I may be breaking with Disney orthodoxy to say that Tigger and Pooh is nowhere near as bad as its detractors would make it out to be. The show is rather mediocre and quite forgettable, but it is functional and certainly seems to have been made with good intentions. The most common criticism leveled at the show is the substitution of a young girl named Darby in place of Christopher Robin. However, in the final moments of the original short films, Christopher Robin essentially says goodbye to his childhood toys as he goes off to grow up. With that in mind, the criticism that he has been replaced in the new show by a girl seems particularly misguided. Pooh has proven to be a reliable companion over the years to generations of real-world Christopher Robins over the years, so why not let a new child have her adventures with Pooh? The fact that these adventures are rather stale and not very interesting is a better reason to criticize the show.
The farewell sequence in the original movie is also something that sets it apart from average animated fare today. There aren’t that many animated films for children today that have the courage to tell to their audience that someday they will grow up and leave some of their favorite things behind them. Still, no matter what your age, it’s hard not to smile at the Silly Old Bear and his antics, which have lost none of their ability to charm over the years. This DVD release is certainly a fitting tribute that will also happen to preserve his longevity.
All images in this review are © Disney.