A Study in Disney: ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ (1977)

| December 25, 2021

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Tigger | Winnie the pooh quotes, Winnie the pooh friends, Winnie the pooh

Isn’t it odd that Winnie the Pooh never thought to take up beekeeping?  He has an unapologetic addiction to the honey (or hunny) and will apparently go to any length to get it.  Plus, beekeeping would be a perfect vocation for him since he doesn’t seem to have any fear of bees.  They swarm around him, and even end up in his mouth wherein he simply spits them out like a machine gun.  To their credit, it must be said that the bees don’t seem to have any intention to sting either.  Many of Pooh’s shenanigans seem to revolve around his politely greedy pursuit of honey (or hunny) and it might be supposed that the hobby of beekeeping might have saved him a few misadventures.

Misadventures, yes.  Adding the word “Adventures” to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh might be something of a misnomer.  The movie is so laid-back and casual that you can’t really call his actions “Adventures.”  Perhaps, mis-adventures might have been more appropriate, maybe The Many Shenanigans of Winnie the Pooh might have worked too.

Of all of Walt Disney’s animated features, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is possibly the kindest and gentlest.  There isn’t a villain; there are no real heavy moments; no eleventh hour “all-is-lost” moment.  There isn’t an over-arching dramatic task that needs to get done.  The stories (the film is divided into three of them) just seems to move from one thing to another, all dealing with Pooh and his friends, Rabbit, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga, Roo and Gopher.  It is like playing outside with friends.  New possibilities are all around when there isn’t an agenda

Walt Disney had a lot of stories in mind for features but seemed to prefer high-action to low-flying misadventures.  Going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt had been mining literary sources for potential features films, many of which came from books and stories that he was exposed to as a child.  A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” books were slightly different in that the inspiration came from books that his daughters enjoyed.

The books were the work of English author A.A. Milne who wrote “Winnie the Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner” in 1926 and based them around his son Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals.  While they were immensely popular in England, the books were virtually unknown in the United States.  Walt Disney understood this and was careful not to move too fast on a property that American audiences might have rejected out of unfamiliarity.  So, instead of moving full-force into a feature film, he decided to portion the stories out in a series of three shorts that would, little by little, introduce Winnie the Pooh and his friends to American audiences.  Therefore, the movie-going public would be much more familiar with the characters when it came time for a feature.  It worked, Pooh and his friends developed into one of the most popular and lucrative franchises in the company’s history. 

The stories of Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood are, today, as familiar to us as the characters in The Wizard of Oz, Narnia or The Hobbit.  They are distinctive but uncomplicated.  Each has a singular personality trait that not only carries them through many adventures but allows them to connect well with the others.  Pooh is politely greedy in his pursuit of honey.  Rabbit is fussy and always at the wrong end of whatever is going on.  Eeyore is depressed, of course.  Owl is fastidious and wise.  Piglet is shy.  Tigger is all energy.  Kanga and Roo are always game for the fun.  All of the characters maintain the same spirit in the film that they had in the book.

The exception is Gopher who is an original creation, added to the film to give this very British story an American connection.  Originally, he was to replace Piglet before common sense prevailed.  He first appears in the film when Pooh ends up stuck in Rabbit’s front doorway.  Gopher presents himself as an excavator for hire and makes jokes that he’s not listed in the phonebook – “I’m not in the book, you know” he says several times.  It is an in-joke, you see.  He’s really not in the book.

What is interesting about these characters in terms of this movie is that they seem to exist inside the caverns of a child’s imagination.  Their designs express how a child might see them, but they are not consistent.  Some, like Rabbit and Gopher and Owl seem real; anthropomorphic representations of real-life animals.  But the others, like Pooh and Piglet, seem like living breathing stuffed animals with button eyes and stitching which routinely busts open and is easily sewn back up.  When Pooh flies through the air, often his limbs are locked in the seating position like a stuffed animal, yet they are fluid anyway.

That gives way to a curious addition to the film.  Christopher Robin himself has button eyes like Pooh rather than real eyes like Rabbit.  Plus, the shape of his face looks a little like Pooh as well.  What is the film suggesting?   Well, if you concede that Christopher is imagining himself inside the storybook world while it is being read to him, then you might imagine that he would identify himself with them.  Yet, notice that he’s in the storybook but he is largely not part of the stories themselves.  He’s an inward observer to the storybook itself.

The storybook element of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the most wildly creative element here.  The story is read to us as if we are a child sitting on the lap of a kindly uncle (narrated here by Sabastian Cabot).  The film opens in a real bedroom which is empty.  The suggestion is that we are the child that will have the story read to us.  The off-screen narrator reads the story to us but also interacts with the characters.  The characters themselves are openly aware that they are not only in a story but are in a book that is being read; at the end of one chapter, Pooh tells the narrator, “I haven’t finished yet” to which the narrator reminds him that he’s in the next chapter.  Sometimes the words are bent and twisted and at one point blown right off the book itself.

This is a very clever approach and seems to embrace what would inevitably be the same criticisms that are the burden of all film adaptations – that they lose the spirit of the original work by visualizing it.  That may or may not be true here.  There is an attempt to pull the characters and their adventures out of the books and let them play around in the margins, but it never becomes an over-burdened gimmick.  Largely, the story just sees Pooh and his friends having fun, getting into silly shenanigans without the burden of having a heavy story to labor through.  The sweet gentility lets the material float around like a feather on the breeze.

That sweetness, however, overcomes a strange bit of melancholy.  While the movie doesn’t overwhelm us with this, it does remind us that Christopher Robin is, in fact, a real boy who will inevitably become a man and put away childish things.  This idea slides very gracefully into the film’s closing passage as Christopher tells Pooh, “Promise you won’t forget me.”  To which Pooh assures him “Oh, I won’t, Christopher, I promise.”

That’s an interesting approach.  The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, for the most part, deals with the various goings-on with these characters, spends an hour or two with them and then is forced to draw to a close.  But it doesn’t do that with any great overwhelming dramatic arc.  The great drama is the melancholy fact that all children’s stories must inevitably come to a close, that we must grow up and grow past the things we held to our hearts as children.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take some of that magic with us.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.