Monday, July 18, 2011

Disney Summer Movies 2011: Silly Old Bear

The headwear might be questionable on a runway,
but Pooh and friends pull it off admirably.
So, it finally arrived. One of the two summer movies that I have been waiting months to see. I know that almost everyone else was lining up, packing theaters to go and see the new Harry Potter movie. I never jumped on that train. I have yet to read any of the books and I quickly lost interest in the movies, though I've no doubt that both series are quite good. I assume that one day I will catch up with my sister and consume them all, but not before she takes me to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which looks pretty awesome. She is not much of a reader but devoured all of the books and loves the movies. If she's that head over heels about them, then they must be worth checking out.

I must say that whenever something becomes the thing that everyone watches/listens to/reads/does I usually avoid it like the plague. I'm usually either on the tipping point of a phenomenon or I wait for all of the hullabaloo to die down before I finally join the fray. So, until I join the rest of humanity in Pottermania, I will share my experience with the other other new release of the weekend, which I have been anticipating with pure, unadulterated glee. Winnie the Pooh.

Let me start off by saying that the movie did not have a huge opening. It fell short of projected box office numbers, landing at number 6 for the week (one spot behind the weeks old eyeball assault otherwise known as Cars 2), despite pretty amazing reviews. Winnie the Pooh is actually one of the best-reviewed movies of the year so far, and deservedly so. Though the film may have a different audience than the Potter film, I still feel like it has gotten quite drowned out in all of the media clutter surrounding what has become the film with the biggest opening weekend of all time. A small, proudly quiet and charming little film couldn't really get a word in edgewise. I hope that the audiences find it.

Can you spot the Backson in this poster?
This is one of the loveliest animated movies I have seen in a very long time. Watching Winnie the Pooh is as close to you can get to feeling like you're being hugged by a movie. To prepare for the new film, I watched the classic  The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh from 1977, which was actually a compilation of three short films from the 60's and 70's which were woven together into one feature length picture. It is small and handcrafted. It is full of the kind of charm and warmth that has now been replaced in children's films by bodily functions and pop culture references and the new film follows suit.

This kind of movie is what Disney does so well. The strength is in the workmanship. The characters, so beautifully rendered, honor the original designs. They do not try to reinvent the characters. They brought in top drawer talent to animate this movie- folks like Andreas Deja, Mark Henn and Eric Goldberg- and it shows. The animation is imaginative, subtle and gorgeous. Nothing about this movie feels like a rush job or straight to video cash cow. They are helped immensely by a wonderful and energetic voice cast, who ably fill the big shoes left for them.

Where it really shines is in the storytelling. In it's slight running time, which is barely over an hour, it effectively tells several different Pooh tales, but the result is seamless in a way even the original wasn't since this was conceived as a whole piece. The stories overlap and are all told bit by bit simultaneously and it gives the movie a less choppy feel. The best part is that, once again, they have not strayed from the simplicity and beauty of what makes Pooh so special. Pooh does not have an alter ego who wants to be a pop star, nobody passes gas for a quick laugh, and there are no interpolations of top 40 hits. Rather, Pooh wants honey, they get real laughs from Owl sneezing (...or did he?), and Zooey Deschanel reinterprets the classic "Winnie the Pooh" song gently.

Speaking of Zooey Deschanel, she was a perfect fit for this movie. Her voice is quirky but inviting. She sings the title song, adds vocal touches to the other original songs and sings an adorable song that she wrote for the closing credits.

The rest of the original songs, by Robert Lopez, who wrote both Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez do justice to the gentle wordplay of the brilliant Sherman Brothers songs from the original while managing to find their own sound.

I know what you're asking. What differentiates this film from the old one? Why not just pull out the DVD and save myself ten bucks? It's simple. A different set of imaginative minds used what came before as guidelines for successful continuation rather than a blueprint for success or limitations on creative interpretation. They took ideas from the original and expanded them, such as the interplay between the characters and the text. The new film takes the concept of Pooh and his friends interacting with the text on the pages of the book that they are in from the earlier film to the next level, making it an even more playful part of the new film. This is a companion piece that will sit proudly on the shelf side by side with its predecessor.

No good can come from this, Piglet.
A fantastic sequence, which really shows the synthesis of artistry, voice work, storytelling, and music is the Backson song. It is surely akin to the heffalumps and woozles, but done in a new and exciting way. Keeping it fresh but not trampling on what's come before. The sequence is easy to find online. Just go to youtube and search "winnie the pooh backson" and enjoy. By the way, you've got to stick around until the very end of the movie after the credits. You'll thank me later.

I went with Tom and my roommate Katie on the morning after it came out. It was a lovely Saturday and we arrived early. As it got closer to showtime, the theater began to fill with a good number of little ones with their big ones in tow. I would say most of them were no older than five or six. I heard at least two sets of parents talk about how it was their children's first time at the movies. I couldn't help but think what a wonderful experience it was for them. What a great first movie and memory made to go with it.

All of the children sat rapt. They weren't restless or bored. The humor was not too complicated or over their heads. They were loving it, laughing unabashedly. The length was enough that it was special but not so long that their attention wandered. This was Winnie the Pooh's target audience and they were eating it up. It was a perfect way to experience the movie. Surrounded by little nuggets with wide open hearts and minds.

And it made me realize what the movie does so well. It was a great equalizer. It was not talking down to the kids or winking at the adults. It was treating us all the same. The kids appreciated the same things in the same way that I was appreciating them. It allowed me to relish what is childlike and simple within myself and challenges the little ones to begin to grasp concepts like teamwork and acceptance without obvious morality. At the same time, the kids were allowed to be kids and the same lessons were reinforced within me as an adult.

The trailer really gets it right. The movie is effective and we love these characters so much because they are all parts of our basic selves.

I love that they called this film just plain Winnie the Pooh. No bells or whistles. It tell you exactly what you are going to get in no uncertain terms and delivers it in a artistically rich, enjoyable, humorous, uncomplicated and powerful way. I hope that families start to take advantage of the opportunity to take their little ones to see a wonderful movie that they can all genuinely enjoy together. And I hope adults who care about the state of animation support efforts to keep traditional methods alive when they are rendered so beautifully. And I hope anyone who wants to feel the joy of being a kid again for one rapturous hour gets off their duff and goes to see Winnie the Pooh.

Last but not least, There is a fantastic short that comes before the picture based on the Loch Ness Monster, "The Ballad of Nessie". The styling is very 1950's Disney cartoon short with bold colors and patterns, a la Mary Blair, and in the same visual style as Home on the Range, which is an underrated gem. It's very visually striking, tipping it's hat to the past, once again. It finds a very imaginative way to show you that's OK to cry. Sometimes it's even good for you. I loved the short and love the idea of Disney films pairing shorts with features again and hope that they keep it up.

I went to the New York Public Library a few days ago. I had known for a while that the original toys that A.A. Milne based the Pooh stories on lived there, but hadn't made the effort to go visit them. As I entered the room they are in and saw them peeking out at me from behind a glass encasement, I am shocked at how emotional I got. These characters have been with me since I was a child, they have been with my Mama since she was a child, and they will play a part of my own children's lives. Milne and Disney were both responsible for the creation of this grand, beautiful mythology that touches us in a wonderfully powerful way. I felt grateful to share a few moments with these guys who started it all and I'm glad to know that Disney is doing right by them.

Has anybody else made it out to the Hundred Acre Wood yet? Did you fall under its spell the way that I did?

1 comment:

  1. My friend took Dyllan to see it yesterday. I wanted to go to but I wasn't invited. It was a "big girls" date. My friend said Dyllan (and the other children) were all surprisingly quiet and attentive. From what I can tell, Dyl liked it. I hope so because I'm taking her again! I can't wait to see it and love taking Dyllan to movies.

    That said, I have to add that this is a beautifully written review. You always seem to express feelings that I feel too. I can't wait to meet you. I just hope that you don't get tired of me ending your stories or conversations by excitedly squealing "Me too!". ;)