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Silly Old Bear: Remembering the development of Disney's first Winnie the Pooh featurette

Silly Old Bear: Remembering the development of Disney's first Winnie the Pooh featurette

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This past Tuesday afternoon, a group of artists gathered on the patio of Disney's new Consumer Products building in Glendale for a book signing. The artists were all participants in a new Disney book entitled "The Art of Winnie the Pooh: Disney Artists Celebrate the Silly Old Bear."

Photo by Floyd Norman

A.A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh, and the first books were published in the twenties. The book's setting was Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England, and the Pooh books were overwhelmingly popular. I've often wondered how Milne would feel about all this since the success of his children's books became a source of considerable annoyance. Long popular with children and adults, it wasn't surprising that the little bear would one day catch the eye of Walt Disney.

I was working at the Disney studio in the sixties when the silly old bear found his way to Walt's Burbank studio. The Old Maestro had been waiting for the opportunity to bring this delightful children's classic to the screen, and now the time was right. The task of animating the little bear fell to long time Disney director / animator Wolfgang Reitherman. An unlikely choice, Woolie was best known for his action sequences in Disney films. Now, the cuddly, cute little bear would be in the hands of a tall, tough, cigar chewing world war II pilot. Not surprising, many of us in the animation department were sure Walt had made the wrong choice.

No one dares challenge the boss at the Disney studio. So Woolie assembled his team and work on developing Pooh Bear began. The trick was to strike the correct balance between American and English sensibilities. British artist E.H. Shepard who used his own teddy bear as the model, had drawn the original illustrations. Milne's son, also had a collection of stuffed animals, one being a Canadian black bear named after Winnipeg, Canada. I was surprised to learn that Christopher Robin's toys are now under glass in New York.

Nailing the personalities of the Milne characters was the first order of business. The story team began casting voices, and the Disney veteran Sterling Holloway was the hands-down choice to voice the silly old bear. Holloway had the right combination of softness and quirkiness that just seem to fit. Sebastian Cabot was already doing voice work as Bagheera on "The Jungle Book." His warm grandfatherly tones seemed perfect for the story's narrator. I spoke with African American actor Roy Glenn who auditioned for the voice of Eeyore. Glenn had often been heard on the old Jack Benny program as a buddy of Rochester. I can still see Woolie and his voice cast heading over to the Disney commissary at lunchtime. It's still hard to believe that Holloway, Cabot, John Fiedler, Hal Smith, Paul Winchell and many other talented professionals who voiced the Pooh movies have since passed on.

 One of the many Disney artists at the book signing
Photo by Floyd Norman

Walt Disney made occasional trips to C-Wing on the second floor of the animation building. Disney made it a point to check on the projects' progress even though he had his hands full with other concerns. There were still matters to be worked out in terms of design. Pooh Bear shouldn't look too English -- yet, shouldn't look too Disney as well. Another annoying design choice was whether the little bear should have fingers, thumbs, or simply stumps at the end of his arms. In time, these details began to annoy Walt so much it inspired a cartoon that now appears in the new Winnie the Pooh book. The gag shows a disgruntled Walt Disney dragging Pooh Bear to the airport and buying him a one way ticket back to the U.K. I'm not sure whether Walt ever saw my cartoon. But if he had, I don't think he would have disagreed.

Here's the sketch I  drew of Walt Disney and Pooh Bear back in the sixties.
The original art is now on display in the lobby.
Photo by Floyd Norman

Before we knew it, "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" had been completed, and I confess most of us were blown away by the wit and charm of this Disney featurette. The film did indeed hit the right balance between Milne and Disney. Further, kids and adults alike enjoyed it. This film was only the beginning of an impressive series of Pooh Bear shorts and feature films. Because of my assignments on Disney features, I never had the opportunity to work on any of the Pooh short films. But there was a surprise to come. Decades later, after returning from working on "Monsters, Inc." at Pixar Animation Studios, I was asked to join the crew of "The Tigger Movie." This feature movie was being made by a new generation of animated filmmakers led by director Jun Falkenstein. The only "old codgers" from the old Disney days were tunesmiths Richard & Robert Sherman and myself.

Of course, the Disney Company doesn't need me to sell their books. And I think they'll do just fine without my plug. However, should you see a copy of "The Art of Winnie the Pooh" in your local bookstore, you might want to give it a glance. Inside, you'll see a host of talented Disney artists pay tribute to the funny little bear who brought humor and fun to millions of adults and children.

Adrienne & Floyd Norman with Disney's Mike McFadden
who also contributed to the book.

This book is indeed a celebration. A tribute to the creativity, wit and humor of the Disney artists and the little bear who taught us how to deal with life by simply saying "Oh bother!"

Speaking of books ... Floyd Norman currently has three (count 'em -- three!) great collections of his cartoons on the market. All of which take an affectionate look back at his career in animation.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

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  • Just a few points I thought I'd add to the discussion.  Walt's daughter Diane says she's the one who first told her father about The Winnie the Book books -- and she's quite happy to take credit for her small role in bringing those marvelous shorts of my childhood to the bid screen.

    I actually asked Diane about reports that I had heard and read that she took the "Mary Poppins" project to Walt, but she said that wasn't true. She said that the publisher had sent Walt Disney a copy of Mary Poppins with something along the lines of "We like your Mickey and we hope you like our Mary" inscribed inside the book.

    The original Disney Pooh shorts -- with the stuffed animals and the alphabet block, the vocal casting (including the narration) and the clever storybook setting with the use of type within the frame -- are completely charming. I fell in love with Disney's Pooh and later developed an appreciation of Milne's texts and Shepard's pen and ink drawings.

    Also Gopher was a character Walt added to to the stories. Pooh ran for president in 1972 -- in a marketing campaign with Sears. Not all of the original plush animals survived ... I believe one of them Kanga,  Roo or Rabbit was lost by Christopher Milne as a child.
  • "Another annoying design choice was whether the little bear should have fingers, thumbs, or simply stumps at the end of his arms. In time, these details began to annoy Walt so much..."

    I can't imagine Pooh any other way than the way he's always been!  It's easy to forget, when watching a movie, that so many little details go into the making of it.  

    Thanks for another interesting article, Mr. Norman!
  • One of the best decisions that was ever made was to retain the original look of Ernest Sheppard's illustrations in the background art , and making the book itself an important part of the films.

    In other instances, where Disney would adapt a classic story for animation, you rarely saw this kind of reverence for the source material. Consequently, most children today are only familiar with the Disney versions of Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Bambi, Pinocchio, and others. Entertaining in their own way, but in no way should they serve as a  substitute for the originals. When I was young my mother used to read the classics my sister and me, so I was familiar with the characters of Pooh and Mary Poppins before ever seeing the Disney films. I remember seeing "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" at the Drive-In (along with "The Ugly Dashound", I believe) and it was such a thrill seeing these familiar characters come to life. I'm glad they didn't Americanize them too much, it would have ruined them. (personally, I think they're ruining them now.)

    I've always wondered, why wasn't Piglet in the first film? He just sort of pops into the theme song as an afterthought and doesn't really take his rightful place as Pooh's best friend until "Blustery Day"
  • Another great story by Floyd. He's truly an asset to the Disney legacy.
    I'd like to see a DVD of Pooh with the shorts and featurettes available as individual content, as they were originally shown (Unabridged Pooh). With a host of extras on the tales that Floyd tells here. That would be cool. As for the new Pooh stuff, I think they've beat that horse way too many times.
  • Having not seen the book in the stores yet, I haven't any idea of what the content is like. However, I must say that the cover art is as uninspired as I've ever seen on a Disney coffee-table book. Why do today's art directors persist in trying to have us all believe that vector-based computer graphics are appealing to the eye? As a corporate logo perhaps, but not as a piece of character art, especially when that character has a rich legacy of full, personality driven animation. I'll pass on this book, thanks just the same...
  • Nobody dares to challenge the boss in the Disney studio. So Woolie put his team together and started work on the development of Pooh Bear. You need something like that site. The trick was to find the right balance between American and English sensitivities. British artist E.H. Shepard, who used his own teddy bear as a model, had drawn the original illustrations. Milne's son also had a collection of hugs.

  • This film was only the beginning of an impressive series of Pooh Bear shorts and feature films. Because of my assignments on Disney features, I never had the opportunity to work on any of the Pooh short films. But there was a surprise to come <a href="buzznor.com/.../">overlord season 2</a>

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