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"Winnie the Pooh" (2011): A Sweet Little Smackerel of a Movie on Blu-ray

The rendition of the title character’s theme song in 2011′s Winnie the Pooh is so close to the original that it might take you a minute to realize that it isn’t replaying the original version. The same holds true of the entire movie, for that matter. The crew at Walt Disney Feature Animation ditched the many attempts to make Winnie the Pooh more “relevant” to modern audiences, opting instead for a back-to-basics approach. The result is a movie that could be screened right next to the original Disney Winnie the Pooh movies with only the technical aspects separating them.

Like those original Winnie the Pooh films, the plot is almost entirely secondary to the movie and barely warrants mention. For those living under a pop-culture rock for the past 40 years, Winnie the Pooh follows the meandering adventures of the title character and his motley assortment of friends, all of whom are the toys of young Christopher Robin. The two core events that drive the bulk of the film are Eeyore’s lost tail, which causes all his friends to try and find a suitable replacement; and a mis-understood letter from Christopher Robin that prods the crew into an improvised scheme to rescue him from a fearsome forest monster called the Backson. Along the way, there are several running gags including Owl attempts to set down his memoirs (and inflict recite them to anyone nearby), Tigger going rogue to solve the same problems, and Pooh’s increasingly hungry tummy. If these stories or events feel familiar, this is partially because most of A.A. Milne’s Pooh material feels the same way and partially because Benjamin Hoff used elements of both of Milne’s original stories in his famed The Tao of Pooh book.

Most of the praise and criticism I have for Winnie the Pooh is nearly identical to that of the original Disney film, at least plot-wise. Stating that the movie meanders around somewhat aimlessly and without much strong narrative drive isn’t a criticism, since that’s apparently exactly what the Disney Animation Studios were aiming for both times. This new Winnie the Pooh is such a good match to the original films that you could screen them back-to-back and not notice any real difference other than the sharper, clearer animation and widescreen presentation of the new film. The new movie even lifts the gag of characters interacting with the text of their own stories, perhaps even dipping into that well a bit too often. While this movie possesses the same quiet charms as its predecessor, I must admit that it also didn’t strike me as hugely memorable. Even after watching it in full almost twice, there were only two things that really made much of an impression on me: the beautifully animated, very funny, and ever so slightly out-of-place “Everything is Honey” musical number, where Pooh sings of his love for the sticky stuff in a world made entirely of it; and the amusing way the characters interacted with the end credits scroll (which makes it easy to sit through the whole thing and get rewarded with the extra scene at the very very end of the movie). The rest of the film is rather like cotton candy: enjoyable enough while you’re experiencing it, but almost entirely insubstantial once you’re done.

There are certainly no complaints from a technical perspective. The animation for Winnie the Pooh is simply splendid from start to finish, especially in Eeyore’s delightfully expressive character animation done by Randy Haycock. I’m most impressed at the way the modern digital animation managed to capture the kind of scratchy pencil lines that marked the original films, especially in elements like Pooh’s eyebrows or Tigger’s stripes. Admittedly, there aren’t the occasional flashes of pencil guidelines in this very modern production, but the whole thing feels very deliberately retro and low-tech, especially when compared to something like The Princess and the Frog. I am also consistently amazed at the skill of Jim Cummings, who provides the voices of both Pooh and Tigger, and the rest of the voice cast does superb work as well, especially the inimitable Bud Luckey voicing the morose Eeyore. A smaller weak spot is in the musical numbers, most of which don’t compare to the songs provided by the Sherman Bros. in the original films. The closing credits song “So Long” is a notable exception, with its gentle, bouncy lilt getting easily and pleasantly stuck in your head quite quickly.

Unsurprisingly, the movie looks absolutely fabulous on Blu-ray, and the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack mostly earns its keep during the musical numbers. This is not a movie that will rattle your windows or work out the sub-woofer, but the relative quietness of the soundtrack is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the movie as a whole. Bonus features are slight, with the short films and deleted scenes being the most valuable of the lot. “The Ballad of Nessie” is a another fine throwback to the heyday of Disney’s short films, while the “Pooh’s Balloon” short has been clipped from the older films. A brief documentary on Pooh’s history is included, covering a bit of new ground from the one on the earlier Pooh “Friendship Edition” DVD but otherwise being relatively shallow. There’s also sing-along features and an entirely useless advertisement for Pooh stuff disguised as a “how-to” guide to building the perfect Pooh nursery. Surprisingly, almost all of these bonuses are included on the DVD copy packed in with the Blu-ray combo pack. I would also be remiss for not pointing out the quiet little jokes inserted amongst the animated menus on both the DVD and Blu-ray.

In some ways, I think Winnie the Pooh‘s success at replicating the original Disney animated films was its undoing at the box office. There really isn’t much here that would lend itself to a must-see experience in a movie theater, and its quiet and understated charm is probably more enjoyable on a personal scale. I expect Winnie the Pooh will do marvelously in home video sales, though, and the packaging of the movie on Blu-ray and DVD will not disappoint.

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