Winnie the Pooh can be placed alongside Mickey Mouse as one of the Disney company‘s enduring characters. In fact, you could consider the Winnie the Pooh gang to be just as vaunted as the Fab Five, themselves. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is really a gathering of three Winnie the Pooh shorts, with a wraparound story. It works to great effect, especially considering the idea that it’s presented as a collection of stories in a book. It’s an improvement on the package films of the 1940s but if you’ve seen any of these shorts individually, it can feel tedious. The characters, though, are all lovable; the animation is the best of the decade; and the movie plays as a whimsical adventure that we haven’t seen from Disney in a while.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh tells three core stories: In Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Sterling Holloway) plans to eat his beloved honey. On the way, he raises the ire of a hive of honey bees, and gets trapped in Rabbit’s (voiced by Junius Matthews) front door. In Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, a wind storm crashes Owl’s (voiced by Hal Smith) house, and Pooh meets Tigger (voiced by Paul Winchell) who teaches him about Heffalumps and Woozles. In Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, Rabbit’s efforts to get Tigger to stop bouncing meet some resistance.
Watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is akin to revisiting a childhood book or event. You always expect it to be exactly the same, and you can invoke the feelings you felt as if you were still a child. The film can do that, as well as tell its own story through the eyes of the little boy, Christopher Robin (voiced by various actors). Christopher Robin eventually grows up at story’s end, just as the children watching this will as well. And yet, you can immediately turn this on and feel as if you’ve never left; as if Pooh and his friends are still there waiting for you, just as they wait for Christopher Robin. With all this sentimentality, it makes sense that we see the closing of several chapters behind the scenes at Disney with this film. The first short in the Winnie the Pooh universe, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, came out in 1966 (before Walt Disney’s death). He was actively developing the franchise, and had advised a lot of the stuff going into Blustery Day, which would be released in 1968. Several historians consider this the final work Disney had his hand in, although I’d dispute that since the finished product was simply combining all three shorts. Similarly, this was the final film work for Barbara Luddy, Matthews, and Sebastian Cabot. Luddy, who was the voice of Lady in Lady and the Tramp, as well as Kanga here would die two years later; Matthews, who voiced Rabbit and Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone, along with Sebastian Cabot – who narrated this as well as voiced Bageera in The Jungle Book – would die a year later.
With all the sadness of these final performances, it creates a relaxed and peaceful calm in watching this film. There’s no rising tension or suspense that you believe is truly tragic. Sure, Pooh and Piglet may find themselves in danger of being swept away during a flood, but you never fear as if this is the end for them (it’s not Toy Story 3!). The comic timing and one-liners are enough to make you smile, even if Pooh is the world’s worst houseguest or Rabbit is a stick in the mud. Gopher’s puns are great for those of us with vocal skills, as they’ll sail over the heads of the youngest child. When he says “Gotta get this bear outta here. He’s blocking the whole project” it’s a solid joke because Pooh’s entire body can’t be removed. Pooh’s pleading that he wasn’t going to eat the honey, “just taste it” reminds adults of all those times you backtracked on what you were eating or doing; you were just having a bit! The unique element of Winnie the Pooh is that it’s self-aware. The narrator mentions how certain events can go on for several pages, but the characters understand they’re in a book, as well. The only one who doesn’t get what’s going on is Tigger, which results in a laugh-inducing “Who are you” when the narrator starts talking. The fact that it’s taken over an hour for anyone to ask who Cabot’s character is, is the source of the mirth.
The individual stories are cute. Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree is about Pooh’s quest for honey with disastrous results. The high point is when he gets stuck in Rabbit’s front door, causing Rabbit to find ways to decorate Pooh’s backside – framing it and painting a moose face on it. Blustery Day is the one I remember most, as it introduces Piglet and Tigger. The “Heffalumps and Woozles” is the part remembered most. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too feels the weakest of the bunch. Rabbit isn’t the best character as he’s a crotchety old man who doesn’t like fun. At the same time, Tigger can be too abrasive and one-note. The combination makes for a short that felt long and undefined. One bad short out of three isn’t too bad, though.
The last couple of Disney works have felt high concept, as if the everyone at Disney is stretching to make a story that will please children and their parents; animation feels secondary. Here, the source material is a beautiful book for children that is good for adults due to script and voice work. Some argue that Disney ruined the heart of A.A. Milne’s work, and I can’t comment towards that as I don’t recall anything from the books. If anything, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh feels like the animators, directors, and screenwriters were able to breathe. Then again, that’s probably because these were released as shorts and only a wraparound story had to be composed. Regardless, the plot is simple, the characters are solid, and the animation is lovely! I was breathless watching a return to sheer beauty with these scenes. You can see the pen strokes in the characters; like they walked off Milne’s page and onto the screen. If you can watch this on a Blu-Ray or HD, it’s the only way to go. The songs are also whimsical and fun. “Up, Down, Touch the Ground,” “(I’m Just A) Little Black Raincloud,” and “The Rain, Rain, Rain, Came Down, Down, Down” are guileless, innocent, and sweet. They’re songs you can sing when you’re doing something, or to sing to your children. The best remembered are “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers” and “Heffalumps and Woozles.” The latter is heavily inspired by Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants on Parade,” although it’s not nearly as subversive or frightening as the Dumbo original.
One can’t ignore the voice acting here, as the characters are defined wholly through the vocals. Sterling Holloway has been in numerous Disney works that we’ve reviewed previously, but it wasn’t until recently I noticed he was the voice of Pooh. In his past work, like playing Kaa in The Jungle Book, his hypnotic voice has been used for malevolent characters (or in the case of the Cheshire Cat, ambiguous). Here, he’s gentle and sweet. He may be a glutton and a terrible person to invite to dinner, but his voice is so soothing that you can’t stay mad. Piglet (voiced by character actor John Fiedler) doesn’t show up till The Blustery Day, but his nervous, high-pitched voice makes you yearn to protect him. Not to mention, Piglet gets my vote for favorite scene when he luges under Owl’s table. Interestingly, Eeyore’s voiced was provided by Ralph Wright. Wright only ever voiced Eeyore, and is actually credited as a writer for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, the Pooh shorts, and several episodes of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. I know PIXAR gives voice roles to their employees, is it possible this was something similar? Wright’s voice is booming, and somber in a way I don’t recall from the voice of Eeyore now. He gives the character a drawl to his words that I don’t recall, or maybe I’m not remembering correctly? And let’s not forget, Clint Howard was the original voice of Roo!
The Winnie the Pooh group aren’t beloved in my household, but I can appreciate them more after watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. In starting this Disney series, I wanted to revisit characters and stories from my childhood. Winnie the Pooh is the apotheosis of that. When you hear the Winnie the Pooh theme song you instantly know the words; you know how you felt when you first met that fluffy bear, and you know what it’s like not to have the security of childhood toys or the time to spend with them. In a word, Winnie the Pooh helps you visit your childhood, and your innocence; if only for a moment. I recommend it!
NEXT WEEK: The final Disney film of the 1970s, and our first to garner a sequel. It’s the 1977 film, The Rescuers.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.