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Toon Thursday: Disney hits the reset button on Winnie the Pooh

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Toon Thursday: Disney hits the reset button on Winnie the Pooh

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It wasn’t exactly the news that animation fans were expecting. That Walt Disney Animation Studios would be following up “The Princess and the Frog” (i.e. The Company’s much anticipated return to hand-drawn animation) with a feature-length Winnie the Pooh project.

Ah, but there was method to the Mouse’s madness. After several years of experimenting with A.A. Milne’s much beloved characters (EX: Using virtual sets as well as the Japanese “Bunraku” puppeteering technique for Playhouse Disney’s “The Book of Pooh” show to make it appears as though this set of stuffed animals had actually come to life …

Walt Disney's Winnie the Pooh
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

… to the CG animated “My Friends Tigger and Pooh.” Which hoped to make Milne’s characters more palatable to contemporary audiences by giving the Hundred Acre Woods gang a few new playmates. To be specific a six-year-old girl called Darby and her pet dog Buster) …

Walt Disney's Winnie the Pooh
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

… survey work done by the Company showed that consumers weren’t all that crazy with the direction that Disney had taken with the Winnie the Pooh franchise. That – to be honest – they wanted the silly old bear that they remembered from their childhood. Not a version of Winnie the Pooh who dressed like a super sleuth and then solved education-based mysteries.

About this same time, “Meet the Robinsons” director Steve Anderson and “The Princess and The Frog” story supervisor Don Hall approached John Lasseter with what they thought was going to be a home premiere project. And what they proposed was almost startling: An old school Winnie the Pooh movie. Done in the style of the original 1966 featurette, “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” …

Walt Disney's Winnie the Pooh
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

… where the characters in that animated film knew that they were living inside of a storybook …

Walt Disney's Winnie the Pooh
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

… More importantly, that they were all stuffed animals who belonged to one special little boy, Christopher Robin.

Walt disney's Winnie the Pooh
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

But what Steve & Don didn’t realize was that John was a huge fan of the “Winnie the Pooh” featurettes of the 1960s & 1970s. That Lasseter loved virtually every aspect of these films – from their watercolor backgrounds …

Walt Disney's winnie the Pooh
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

… to their whimsical style of storytelling. And here’s the really important thing: That John kind of resented what The Walt Disney Company had turned Pooh into over the past 33 years. That what had originally made this silly old bear so unique & distinct had been lost while A.A. Milne’s characters had been commercialized.

So Lasseter surprised Anderson & Hall but not only embracing to their old school Pooh idea but by also insisting that this proposed home premiere (which would just be called “Winnie the Pooh”) be a theatrical release. What’s more, John wanted this new hand-drawn film to be as close as to “Honey Tree,” “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” and “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” in style & tone as it could possibly be.

In order to do that, Steve and Don reached out to Disney Legend Burny Mattinson. Who – as it turns out – had actually worked on the original “Winnie the Pooh” featurettes. Not to mention giving a very young John Lasseter one of his first jobs at Walt Disney Productions back in the late 1970s. Which was animating several characters for “Mickey's Christmas Carol.”  

Anyway ... Anderson, Hall & Mattinson put their heads together and came up with a suitable feature-length storyline for “Winnie the Pooh.” FYI None of the stories used in this film will be drawn from that authorized Winnie the Pooh sequel that hit store shelves last week, David Benedictus’ “Return to the Hundred Acre Wood” (Dutton Juvenile, October 2009). No, this new Walt Disney Animation Studios production will be based on the original source material. Five A.A. Milne’s stories from “Winnie the Pooh” and “The House At Pooh Corner” that hadn’t yet been used in any previous Disney Pooh projects.

“Which five stories?,” you ask. Well, the folks at WDAS haven’t officially announced this yet. But at least two of the tales being adapted to the screen this time around will be from Milne’s first “Pooh” book, 1926’s “Winnie-the-Pooh.” And they are Chapter IV (In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One) and Chapter VIII (In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole).

John Lasseter presents at D23 September 2009
Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter at the Walt Disney Animation
Studios / Pixar Animation Studios presentation at Disney's D23 Expo
on September 13, 2009 at the Anaheim Convention Center in
Anaheim,California. Photo by Eric Charbonneau
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Anywho … For those of you who are fretting that a feature-length “Winnie the Pooh” film may be a little cutsie-pooh … er … cutsie-poo to sit through while it's in theaters, Lasseter says not to worry. When he talked this project up at the D23 EXPO, John made a point of saying that this upcoming Walt Disney Animation Studios release is “ … not just for little kids.” More importantly that “ … you won’t believe how funny this thing is.”

Now where this gets interesting is that Disney Consumer Products is going to try & take advantage of this new “Winnie the Pooh” film. Use this old school take on A. A. Milne's characters as an excuse to hit the reset button on several Pooh product lines.

This past June at the Licensing International Expo in Las Vegas, DCP officials talked a bit about their plan to reposition Disney’s Winnie the Pooh franchise. Highlighting some of the language that will be used as part of this relaunch. As in:

“Wouldn’t be great if you and your child could return to that singular, golden place … The Hundred Acre Woods? Only Pooh can take you there. Join us on the journey.”

So look for a lot of these old school Pooh products to start turning up on store shelves in early 2011. Which – not-so-co-incidentally – is when this new WDAS hand-drawn feature-length project, “Winnie the Pooh,” will start popping up in theaters around the country.

Walt Disney's Winnie the Pooh
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

So what do you folks? Would you actually buy a ticket for a new theatrical Winnie the Pooh movie? Particularly one that has the whimsical style & tone of those Pooh featurettes that Walt Disney Productions released back in the 1960s & 1970s?

Your thoughts?

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  • I'll see it -- I have enough faith in Lasseter to not force on us a Direct-to-Video movie (much like all other recent pooh features).

    I'll admit that the Tigger Movie was at least a bit enjoyable, partially due to the Sherman Brothers being involved in the song writing.   But Heffalump Movie is an easy pass.  I think the quality of those movies overall will make the movie a tough sell to anybody but little kids.   If that can successfully market it showing that it's a return to the roots, it may succeed.

  • I also heard that this movie was a way to prevent all the hand-drawn animators who are finishing Princess and the Frog from having to get laid off.

    This was a project that could be fast-tracked, until the next BIG hand drawn animated feature could be readied.

  • Your story was featured in DisMarks! Here is the link to vote it up and promote it: http://dismarks.com/Media/Jim_Hill_Toon_Thursday_Disney_hits_the_reset_button_on_Winnie_the_Pooh

  • Good to see Lasseter is getting back to the Disney roots. OTOH, I heard the new Disney adult division has optioned this:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hawk914/2159973655/

    can hardly wait.

  • 'Home Premiere Project'   ???

    Wow Jim, that is some good corporate speak.  Makes a straight to DVD release sound so classy!  LOL

    Seriously though, I think this looks fun.  If Batman and Bond can survive a reboot, so can Pooh!

  • I think the decision to return to Pooh and friends is ultimately indicative of how nervous the Disney brass are about the revival of traditional animation, and this would seem to be a "safe" idea, sure to appeal to an already established audience. I'm not altogether opposed to this, although I do wish they'd have something more original in the pipeline to follow on the heels of "The Princess and the Frog". However, if it must be a revival of Pooh, I am glad to hear that they're returning to the Milne books for the storyline.

    The books themselves are incredibly funny, to my mind being Milne's witty parody of British character types of the human variety that he must have known so well, translated into toy animals as broad caricatures of the various milquetoasts, depressives, busybodies, and know-it-alls of British society. The original trio of Pooh featurettes are as good as they are precisely because they translated fairly faithfully from the book stories, picking up most of the dialogue intact, creating rich animated personalities. If Disney Feature Animation can again do the same now, then perhaps this new feature may well be worth the effort.

    If however, they get browbeaten by the studio brass to impose some idiotic morality tale onto the story, then they'll have lost my interest entirely. I took a pass on the three direct to video features because of that rather contrived, new age, feel-good claptrap that they were trying to feed us. Hopefully, John Lasseter will hold firm against any such executive meddling with this proposed film. I also hope that they do REAL watercolour backgrounds and not try to simulate them digitally. And I also hope they can find some animators who can draw Tigger properly, as I haven't seen any animation that's been done right on him since Milt died.

  • Wouldn't you AND your kids like to return to that special place? What a concept. Getting you and you kids to want to see something together. Seems I've heard someone try this before...

  • I agree in part with Mr. Britt about Tigger. He's been overexposed to the point of annoyance, and he looks badly drawn and animated most of the time. Milt's portrayal had the right combination of mock ferocity and bounce, and the script for "Blustery Day" didn't let Tigger overwhelm the story, which he's pretty much done since. (He's a great character, but a little of him goes a LONG way). Anyhoo, this revival sounds right-headed, and so I'm looking forward to it. BTW, I also agree with Mr. Britt about Milne's wry, witty writing. One thing the Disney films have failed to do is fully capture Eeyore's sarcastic personality. He's just dull and glum all the time, when he was far more than that in the books. Maybe this could be fixed too?

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