I really don’t think I’ve heard this much laughter in a movie all year. And I’m not just talking about the young Disney radio fans that crammed into the promotional screening of the Winnie the Pooh I attended. I was sitting in the “media” rows with my two daughters. Both of them were in stitches, but it was the row behind me, filled with normally stoic, professional movie watchers, that was raging in guffaws. As was I. Winnie the Pooh, as anyone who grew up with the book about Christopher Robin and his merry band of stuffed animals knows, is a riot. And significantly, it is a riot in a way so few movies are these days.
Perhaps because it is based on a text that is now over 90 years old, Winnie the Pooh is still driven by humor that is linguistically intelligent, psychologically piercing, and situationally riotous. What makes Winnie the Pooh so funny is its linguistic sophistication, and by the end, it had me pining for the days when Monty Python was the most influential comedic team on the planet (perhaps the association was because John Cleese is the film’s narrator).
Interestingly, the film is a reminder that sophistication is not the same thing as aloofness or eruditeness. Kids can get sophisticated humor; in fact, they lap it up. A few times during the movie, my five year old leaned over to me to explain why she found a pun, or a verbal double take, or a simple language mishap so funny. Winnie the Pooh is full of jokes you have to get. And at a time when most movies fish for laughs by bombarding its audience with jokes you must merely withstand, getting jokes proves to be a whole lot of fun.
The latest movie is a mash-up of three of A.A. Milne’s stories. Much of the storyline surrounds a central verbal mishap. The animal characters, Pooh, Kanga, Roo, Rabbit, Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and Owl, can’t find Christopher Robin. There is a note, and the stodgy, know-it-all Owl misinterprets its content. Christopher Robin is trying to tell them he is going to be “back soon,” but instead, Owl, in part to hide his own ignorance, invents an elaborate tale about a “Backson,” which has allegedly kidnapped their boy master. This sends the animals into a flurry as they try to capture the mythical beast and save the boy.
Yes, you could read an allegory of adult proportions into this plot, but the story’s content is really driven by its true to life characters, all of which ring with unmistakable familiarity. Eeyore is the consummate pessimist. Rabbit is prickly and stand-offish, his common sense perpetually frustrated by the antics of the less-then-reasonable ensemble. Roo is cute and adventurous. Kanga is the warm-hearted, strong-willed mother. Tigger is an endearing rascal, bombastic if full of false courage. At the center there’s Pooh, the adorable little golden bear who is always following the lead of his rotund tummy. In the new movie his is voiced by Jim Cummings, who won’t disappoint the generations who associate Pooh with the unmistakable vocal stylings of Sterling Holloway.
The new movie’s animation also stays true to the style of previous Pooh incarnations. It is crisp and inventive; it is not in 3D and you don’t feel like you are watching a computer screen. The artwork proves most inventive when it literally incorporates the text of the story into the plot. Characters scoot and skip over words; letters fall off the page and plop on their heads. At one point, the letters themselves are what saves the stuffed characters from a predicament. It is all very clever and alive, if, at a brisk 69 minutes, all too short.