For a silly old bear with a mind largely set on the pursuit of a little sweet smack of honey, Winnie the Pooh sure caused a lot of heavy thinking amongst some of the sharpest minds in show business.
"Anytime you take on a franchise that’s been around as long as Winnie the Pooh has and has been as successful as it has, there’s certainly a moment of pause and, inhaling of a deep breath before you undertake the mission because you know how important this is," Don Hall, co-director of Disney's new franchise "reboot" film, "Winnie The Pooh," told The Huffington Post.
"I mean, Pooh is still, he’s the number two character behind Mickey Mouse, so he’s really big and popular and we knew that if we mis-stepped we’d be making enemies of the diehards," Hall continued. "So I guess there was sort of two ways to go about it: stay true to the roots of Winnie the Pooh or throw that all out and try to come up with some new take on it. It just felt like the way to go, and everyone held hands on it, was to return to its roots."
Pooh's roots, of course, run deep. The silly old bear and his friends were born in the AA Milne-written books that debuted in 1926, and then, after Milne's widow licensed the rights to Disney, the beloved cartoons that ran from 1966-1974 on Sunday nights. Since then, the property has been animated for television, film and various other mediums as technology has developed.
The new film, which hits theaters Friday, stands out as a bit of traditionally animated whimsy in a time when so many other studios rebooting classic cartoons are forgoing their hand drawn pasts to put the show's characters in 3D, sometimes even putting them in live action worlds (see: "The Smurfs," out at the end of the month).
Indeed, anyone who grew up watching Pooh and friends, that cuddly group of toys who take life in the imagination of perpetually young boy Christopher Robin, will be taken immediately back to childhood at first glance at the screen, with its hand drawn characters looking nearly exactly the same as always, just a few shades brighter and cleaner.
"We quickly realized early on that when you return to the Hundred Acre Wood, you want it to be just the way you remembered it; it’s not a world that you want to have seen evolve since the last time you were there, or see that the characters have grown or changed or they’ve built an addition onto their house or that something has evolved," the film's other co-director, Stephen Anderson, said. "You want it to be and feel exactly the way it was."
The plot of the film, which takes Pooh on a journey to find honey for his rumbly tumbly to searching for a new tail for Eeyore to trying to trap a mysterious creature called a Backson, is a simple, linear path, and progresses leisurely enough to allow a number of fun interludes, jokes and songs. Taken from a series of Milne stories that had not yet been animated, the script proves that Hall and Anderson weren't just emphasizing tradition for the film's visuals.
Anderson was a fan since childhood, having read the books and watched the original cartoons -- and even listened to a Winnie & Tigger musical record -- and knew instinctively that, instead of writing their own original story, they needed to return to the 1920s source material, even if previous Disney-produced editions had strayed.
"I’m not sure that we would’ve felt very confident going forward if we hadn’t gone back to Milne as our first step," he said, clearly still very fond of his boyhood obsession. "It just wouldn’t have felt right; we would’ve felt like we were missing a really important part of the process, because ultimately we’re adapting literature. I mean that’s what Winnie the Pooh is, he began as a book, and that’s what Disney Studios did in the 60’s with adapted books, so we’re doing the same thing. So we felt like that needed to be the approach."
The film pays homage to both the print and cartoon history in a number of ways; the opening scenes loft lightly through a live action room, breezing past actual stuffed animal versions of the characters, before entering into an old, hard bound book. Later, Pooh stumbles across a storybook, reminiscent of the way he moved about printed page in the original cartoons, reminding the audience of its lineage.
Nostalgia, though, is not quite enough to capture an adult audience; Hall and Anderson knew that there had to be different levels of plot line and humor to keep those in the theater for reminiscence in their seats.
"Something we realized with Milne as we were reading the books is that he wrote on those kind of levels and as adults, we were laughing at the text, and for me returning to the books as an adult, it was a completely different experience than when I read it as a kid," Anderson remembered. "So we wanted to make sure there was that level of verbal wit, and sort of human observation these characters afford us, all that for the adults."
Referring to the ultimately silly paranoia of the characters whipped up during the hunt for the mysterious Backson -- which was borne of a misreading of a Christopher Robin note by self-appointed genius Owl -- a deliberate yet light touch lesson they intended to convey, Hall joked, "We found this out, Winnie the Pooh is really just an allegory for the invasion of Iraq."
In all, though, the film, for all its directors' pre-production scholarship and serious consideration of history, is largely filled with lighthearted, "slapstick and silliness for the kids," as Anderson put it. While it has nods and winks to adulthood, the movie never gets too heavy-handed.
"We just wanted to tell a story, and, yes, there’s a theme there, there’s a theme about friendship and the sacrifices one makes when you’re a friend," Hall said, "but we didn’t want to hit anyone over the head with it, because we felt maybe in the past people had used these characters almost too much to entertain and not enough to entertain. We just wanted to entertain."
Anderson echoed the emphasis on entertainment and fun over any sort of moral hammering, though he noted that the feel good aspect was obvious.
"What’s great about them is that if you’re looking for some kind of message, some kind of something to take away, you’ll find it, because they are stories about friends working out their issues, relying on each other, and like don said, they all circle around friendship in some aspect," he said, making the case for the kid-friendly universal message. "So, rather than us cram it down everybody’s throat and say 'here’s what you have to take away' I think it’s more important for us that people are entertained and enjoy the movie and then walk away and say 'I got something out of that and it’s this' and it may be different for every person depending on who they are, but we felt that’s the best way to go."