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Winnie the Pooh: ***½. Not as good as the Heffalump Movie.

This Winnie the Pooh film is all right, but it falls rather short of greatness. Its shortcomings pop right into relief when we compare it to the last Pooh film, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. That last film had me in tears at the end. The emotions run high, the music swells, and my eyes get wet. This movie doesn’t quite have it.

The animation is nicer than the last film. I will say that. When they tone down the digital shading effects and give it a more cell-like feel, the look improves. There are some moments that were made to look like they were shot through filters, and these scenes are a bit too monochrome for my tastes. But otherwise, looks fantastic.

It’s the story, friends. It’s the story. The promotional materials all want you to think that this movie is about a search for Eeyore’s tail. But surely there’s more to it than that, yes? Yes, with a “however.” Winnie the Pooh and the cast of familiar characters do spend some time on a search for a new tail for Eeyore. The film does bring in such wonderful elements from the book as Pooh mistaking the word “issue” for a sneeze. Pooh is out of honey and desperate to get some more, which he hopes he can win by finding a new tail for Eeyore. But the big plot is the hunt for the Backson. Christopher Robin, who has finally returned to the Poohniverse, goes away for a while and leaves his animal friends with a note that he will be “back soon.” Owl misinterprets the note and tells everyone that Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by a monster called the Backson. He then explains in song, making it all up as he goes along, what kind of monster the Backson is, and he and the other animals hatch a plan to trap the Backson and save Christopher Robin.

Therein lies the problem. The dilemma is solved before it even appears. Nothing is really at stake. In Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, there was a hunt for a heffalump, and then Roo actually captured one. Roo and the heffalump became good friends, but then they got lost in the woods and despaired that they may not see their mothers again. There were real stakes. There was real danger. Roo had a story arc in which he grew and changed.

In this movie, we already know the monster doesn’t exist and that the dilemma is just a misunderstanding, so the movie comes across as rather inconsequential. A story like this one just isn’t enough for a full-length movie. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Disney was making stories like these as short films, which was more appropriate. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was an episodic film comprised of three of those shorts. This is what they should have done here: a film made up of shorter subjects (new ones, of course.) Because a hunt for a non-existent boogie man where we already know the resolution doesn’t make for something feature-length. In fact, the movie is only 69 minutes long, which proves my point. And it feels too short for a feature film. At the end, I had a strong feeling that there should be more, like a second story in an episode-based film, but that was all there was.

There are some nice touches, though. There is an entertaining story device in which Winnie the Pooh and his friends inhabit a story book with narration by Monty Python’s John Cleese. The characters have humorous interactions with Cleese. For example, he informs us that Winnie the Pooh noticed the aforementioned note, to which Winnie the Pooh responds, “I did?” and Cleese then directs him around his immediate area until he does find the note. Or at the beginning of the film, Cleese announces that Pooh woke up in the morning, but when Pooh doesn’t wake up, he (unseen) shakes the book, tilts it, even flips it over and turns it around to finally get Pooh to wake up. There is also the device of making the text for the story appear as part of the artwork. Characters bump into it, knock it onto the floor, or simply go through their routines while the words describe what they say and do. There is even a sequence in which the characters get stuck in a hole and pile up fallen letters into a ladder that lets them climb out. This is an interesting device. Some will no doubt take issue (gesundheit) with it. Because, after all, why frame things as a storybook simply because the movie was based on a storybook? Many thousands of movies are based on books and never draw attention to the fact. And having the characters interact with the letters to the degree where they use them to solve a problem is taking things too far. However, the rest of the storybook devices are entertaining enough that I’ll let them pass.

Now, furthermore, the whole film is framed with live action segments (no actors) of Christopher Robin’s bedroom, where we see all of his friends as stuffed animals and Cleese informs us that Christopher Robin has a very “active imagination.” Why? Why should anyone want to do this? That Christopher Robin’s animal friends are stuffed animals who only live in his imagination is the unspoken subtext. Once you speak it, the reality loses some of its magic. Winnie the Pooh is just… pretend? You don’t say that out loud! However, the bedroom is elegantly designed and shot, so again, this goes a way to forgiveness. And the sequence at the end, which shows us the various stuffed animals acting out the scenario of the movie, is charming, so again, some forgiveness. If they lost the narration that expressly told us it was all pretend, it would have been better.

The musical numbers are fun. We have a Backson song that is similar in character to “The Horribly Hazardous Heffalumps!” from the last film. We have a song in which Tigger tries to make Eeyore into a second tigger, telling him “It’ll be fun, it’ll be fun, it’ll be fun!” (Or was that “It’ll be great”? I forget.) There’s a song about how a Pooh bear takes care of his tummy. And there’s a great sequence in which Pooh starts to hallucinate about honey. First all his friends start speaking in sentences where words get replaced with “honey.” Then as his friends all walk away, he watches them turn into honey pots. Then the narrator starts a sentence but trails off with “honey honey honey honey honey honey honey…” ad nauseum. And then he transports into a world in which everything is made of honey. He dives deep into a honey ocean where a bee-fish with honeypot eyes swims. He momentarily sings and dances with a Pooh made of honey, then singing, “And since he’s made of honey, I guess I’ll eat him, too.” And he eats the honey Pooh’s head in one bite, and the body is left to dance without it. It’s not a creepy moment, but it is a moment that will make you stop and say, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The musical score is an interesting paradox. On one hand, it’s more mild-mannered and closer in character to the classic shorts from the ’60s and ’70s, and the Classic Disney style, than Carly Simon’s work on Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. We have cast songs, as mentioned above, and a few non-intrusive pieces sung by Zooey Deschanel, and it’s like a return to form. On the other hand, Carly Simon’s music, while unorthodox for Winnie the Pooh and ostensibly an odd fit, was sweeping, powerful, and heightened the emotional impact of that film. Songs like “Little Mr. Roo” and “Shoulder to Shoulder” gave the film a score that was more like Disney Renaissance films than Classic Disney, but the songs were just so strong, that they worked in that movie’s favor. This film didn’t have that, and actually, more Carly Simon songs would have been welcome.

Ultimately, this is an acceptable film. It’s an ok film. It’s a little above average with a few things to recommend, hence 3½ stars. But it comes down to story at the end. Pooh’s Heffalump Movie had a strong story with actual stakes. This film had a story with no great stakes that was more suited for a short subject. Pooh’s Heffalump Movie is filling; it satisfies the rumbly in your tumbly. This film is just a light snack.

P.S. Stay at the end for the credit cookie.

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