Winnie the Pooh, who gets a new full-length feature Friday, may be one of the most beloved and venerable characters in animation, but Walt Disney himself didn’t think much of the dim little bear.Back in 1964, when the studio was working on the first Pooh film, Uncle Walt was busy trying to get Disney World off the ground. Yet he still occasionally checked in to give notes on various animated projects in development.
The animator were about halfway finished with “Winnie the Pooh” when Disney asked to view the footage in the infamous “Sweatbox” (so-named because the Burbank screening room lacked air conditioning).
“When he saw it, he felt that the humor was too mild for the audiences to enjoy,” says Burny Mattinson, a 56-year veteran of Disney who worked on the original Pooh projects. “He was just unsure.”
Disney ordered the planned feature be cut to a short film instead. Mild or not, the 25-minute featurette “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” was released in 1966 and became so popular it was followed two years later with “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.” (The latter, which used some footage leftover from the aborted feature, won an Oscar for best short.)
Pooh’s last theatrical appearance came 34 years ago with “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” but the bear, Christopher Robin and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang are back on the big screen with Friday’s “Winnie the Pooh.”
And the hungry teddy is just as gentle as ever — a big departure from the eye-popping, 3-D, a-joke-a-second formula of modern animated films.
“It’s more laid-back, more low-key,” says Mattinson, who served as the film’s story supervisor. “I think it’s not the whiz bang with chases and so forth.”
The animation is old-school hand-drawn, and the filmmakers intentionally kept the tone the same as the 1960s Disney shorts.
The plot is an amalgam of three stories appropriated from the original Pooh books by A.A. Milne. Pooh, Rabbit, Owl and the rest have a contest to find Eeyore a new tail, after he loses his. Their quest gets sidetracked when they become convinced that Christopher Robin has been kidnaped by a fearsome monster called the Backson, and they set out to rescue him. Ineptly. Oh, and honey is, of course, involved somewhere.
One element the filmmakers did try to update slightly was the humor. Pixar head John Lasseter, who served as executive producer, noted that the “Pooh” characters were like those in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“It really allowed us all to think of these characters in a whole different way,” Mattinson says. “Their humor is so simplistic and yet so off the mark.”
One scene not found in the books that was written for the movie involves Pooh launching Piglet into a beehive, in search of honey. After the cowardly pig gets stuck, Pooh bashes the side of the hive, angering the bees.
“Winnie the Pooh” hopes to capture a new generation of fans . . . and continue pouring massive merchandising dollars into Disney’s coffers. Pooh licensed goods earn the company $1 billion annually, according to Fortune. That’s more than they make off Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto stuff combined.
“Pooh has a timeless quality. He comes from that beautiful tradition as A.A. Milne originally wrote them,” says Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1987. “There will always be room in people’s heart for beautiful, heartwarming stories well-told.”
And most importantly, there are ones without a 3-D surcharge.