If ever a Disney classic had a more auspicious beginning it is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). Conceived by Walt as a series of short subjects - the first released in 1961 - the aegis for this enduring and endearing masterwork began with A.A. Milne’s unassuming book of short stories entitled ‘When We Were Very Young,’ first published in 1924.
A successful writer in Britain, Milne was encouraged by his friend and illustrator, Ernest H Sheperd to compose stories deriving from Milne’s own son, Christopher Robin’s childhood playtime memories and experiences. Sheperd would eventually contribute the illustrations to Milne’s first book as well as the three subsequent installments that followed. Reportedly, Milne had given Chris’ a bear named Edwin for his first birthday – a toy eventually rechristened Winnie the Pooh after a chance visit with a Canadian black bear named Winnipeg, that was housed at the London Zoo.
In Britain, Winnie the Pooh was a well established loveable fictional creation. But in America he and Milne were virtual unknowns, despite the fact that many American soldiers stationed in Europe during the war had sent copies of Pooh to their own children back home. Reportedly, Mrs. Disney was chiefly responsible for Walt’s eventual discovery of Milne – having read the author’s stories to their own daughters at bedtime.
Tight financial times forced Walt to reconsider his original plans to do a full length theatrical release. Instead, he chose to debut the character in a short subject – ‘Winnie The Pooh and the Hunny Tree’ in 1961 to test public response. It was overwhelmingly positive and Walt began groundwork for a second short – intending to unite all subsequent shorts at a later date into one feature length film. The second short, ‘Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery Day’ was released in 1967 and won the Oscar for Best Short Subject. It was a posthumous victory. Walt had died the year before.
Then, in 1977 directors John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman embarked on the final chapter in Milne’s Pooh stories – the moment when young Christopher Robin bids a fond farewell to his childhood and with it the many adventures gone before it. Marrying the first two shorts to this last installment, Lounsbery and Reitherman finally realized Walt’s goal. By then, Winnie the Pooh was his own celebrity in the Disney canon– as much admired and beloved as any of Walt’s other creations from the golden age of animation.
Incorporating a voice over narration by Sebastian Cabot to bridge the shorts together, the feature film begins in earnest with Winnie the Pooh (brilliantly voiced by Sterling Holloway) in search of some honey to satisfy a ‘rumbly’ in his ‘tumbly’. Unable to reach the top of the tree on his own, Pooh borrows a balloon from Christopher Robin (John Walmsley) who is currently nailing a tail onto the backside of his old pal, Eeyore (Ralph Wright).
But the bees are not so easily fooled by Pooh’s camouflage as a little black rain cloud. He is attacked by the swarm and sent into a thistle bush… ‘Oh, bother!’ To satisfy his hunger, Pooh decides to visit Rabbit (Junius Matthews) who always keeps a stock of honey at his disposal. However, after devouring every last bit of honey in Rabbit’s cupboard, Pooh becomes stuck in Rabbit’s hole, resulting in several humorous failed attempts to free himself.
The narrative next moves onto the second short: Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery Day. Pooh and Piglet (John Fiedler) are blown by a great wind into the treetop home of Owl (Hal Smith). A rain storm sends the inhabitance of the Hundred Acre Woods scampering for higher ground with Christopher Robin once again coming to their rescue.
The narrative structure of the film is such that there really isn’t much of a forward moving trajectory to involve the audience. However, the sustained subtly of the animation, coupled with several memorable songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman are more than enough to captivate the heart and mind. In the end, the film works because of Disney’s strict adherence to the episodic source material – its unassuming patchwork creating a perfect cushion for the audiences’ sustained belief.
Disney DVD’s 25th Anniversary Edition adequately recaptures the timeless magic of filmic experience. The opening credits, shot against a live action background, appear a bit thick with obvious age related artifacts present and a lack of fine detail. However, once the story reverts to its animated sequences, the image quality develops marked improvements, both in color fidelity and overall sharpness. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital and is nicely represented. Extras include several games, some trivia and a comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)