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Disney’s going Back to the Future with Winnie the Pooh

Disney’s going Back to the Future with Winnie the Pooh

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Do you hear that loud beep-beep-beep noise coming from Burbank? That’s The Walt Disney Company backing up. Rapidly retreating from its earlier attempts to make the Winnie the Pooh characters seem hip, fashionable and contemporary.

“Coming off of ‘My Friends Tigger and Pooh,’ we did a lot of research,” explained Andy Mooney, Chairman of Disney Consumer Products. “We talked with a lot of mothers. Who do most of the buying when it comes to Winnie the Pooh merchandise. And what we discovered is that Moms liked the original ethos of this franchise. The naiveté, the special relationships that these characters had back when they first appeared in Disney’s original Pooh featurettes.”

Winnie the Pooh crib set
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Speaking yesterday during a virtual press briefing (which was held to hype DCP’s participation in the 2010 Licensing International Expo. Which will be held next week at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas), Mooney talked about Disney had decided to heed these mothers’ advice and (I'm quoting directly from Andy now)" ... take a Back to the Future approach with Winnie the Pooh."

“What we’re really looking to do here is return these characters to their roots. Try and recapture what made them so popular, so desirable in the first place,” Mooney continued.

And a key component of Winnie’s comeback will be a new animated feature (which, following the lead of last year’s ridiculously popular “Star Trek” reboot, will just be titled “Winnie the Pooh”). Which is currently slated to be released on July 15, 2011.

Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Owl from the latest Winnie the Pooh animated feature from Disney
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Given that the Winnie the Pooh franchise is the Company’s second largest franchise (only Mickey moves more merch), the Mouse isn’t taking any chances with this Silly Old Bear reboot. Walt Disney Animation Studios has assembled a crack team of artists, animators and storymen to make sure that this new hand-drawn production has all the charm & the whimsy that you remember from “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,” “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day - Learn to Read Edition” and “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.

This is why WDAS selected Burny Mattinson (who actually worked as an animator on the original Pooh featurette back in 1964) to serve as the lead story artist on this project. And to back Burny up, the Studio tapped some of the very best hand-drawn animators working today. Among them Mark Henn (who’ll be animating this film’s title character, Winnie the Pooh), Andrea Deja (who’ll be drawing Tigger), Glen Keane (who’ll be handling Christopher Robin) and Tony Bancroft (who’ll be animating Eeyore).

Of course, what’s kind of ironic about this top-of-the-line “Winnie the Pooh” hand-drawn animated feature is that it actually started out life as a direct-to-video release. At least that’s what Steve Anderson (i.e. the director of "Meet the Robinsons") and Don Hall (i.e. the head of story on "The Princess and The Frog") thought when they initially pitched this project to John Lasseter.

Steve Anderson, director of Disney's animated feature "Meet the Robinsons"
Steve Anderson. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

But Lasseter was aware of the Company’s efforts to reboot / relaunch its Winnie the Pooh franchise. Which is why he quickly put Anderson & Hall’s film on the theatrical release track.

And while John (who was also a huge fan of Disney’s original “Pooh”) insisted that Steve & Don replicate as much as possible the style & tone of the original featurettes, Lasseter also recognized that Anderson and Hall had to make this film their own. So when research showed that the really-for-real Hundred Acre Woods is far greener, darker and denser than they had been previously depicted in the Disney featurettes … Well, Lasseter let Anderson & Hall make the appropriate adjustments to “Winnie the Pooh” ‘s art direction.

Another new aspect of this WDAS production will be “Winnie the Pooh” ‘s songs. Which – this time around – will not be written by Academy Award-winners Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman. But – rather – by Robert Lopez, the lyricist for “Avenue Q.”

Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, songwriters of the new WDAS production of "Winnie the Pooh"
(L to R) Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx

Which – I know – might cause some dismay. Especially those who might think that the guy who brought us “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn” might not be the very best choice for this particular project. But let's remember that Robert -- along with his lovely wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez -- also wrote the score for DAK's charming Finding Nemo - The Musical.

More to the point, the vocal cast of "Winnie the Pooh" just seems to be crazy about the songs that the Lopezes have written for this film.Take -- for example -- what Craig Ferguson (i.e. the host of CBS’s “Late Late Show” who’ll be doing the voice of Owl for this WDAS production) tweeted back on May 18th from Disney’s Studio B:

recording Owl's song for next years Wnnie the Pooh movie. What a hoot!

And Jim Cummings (i.e. the longtime voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger) is also quick to sing Robert & Kristen's praises. Saying in a recent interview that …

Jim Cummings, voice of Tigger in Disney's "Winnie the Pooh"
Jim Cummings

Wait till you hear the music, it is soooo beautiful. It has everything you like about “Pooh” with a new updated sound.

Now “Winnie the Pooh” ‘s sound may have been updated, but not its source material. Anderson and Hall are using five stories from A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner” as their inspiration / jumping-off point for this all-new animated feature.

“Which five stories?,” you ask. Well, the folks at WDAS haven’t exactly revealed that information yet. But two of the tales being adapted 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).

Pooh bear holds a balloon
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Beyond that, when Lasseter initially talked up this project up at last year’s D23 EXPO, John made a point of saying that “Winnie the Pooh” will not be “ … just for little kids.” More importantly that “ … you won’t believe how funny this thing is.”

Well, the Studio certainly seems confident in “Winnie the Pooh.” Given that – just last month – Disney revealed that it would be changing the release date of this hand-drawn animated feature. No longer will “Pooh” be released in the relatively safe harbor of Spring 2011. No, the Mouse moved “Winnie the Pooh” to July 15, 2011. Which means that this Silly Old Bear is now going head-to-head with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II."

But what you folks think? Will this Back to the Future approach will actually work with Disney’s reboot of its Winnie the Pooh franchise?

Disney's Winnie the Pooh logo
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

More to the point, do you think that it’s wise of the Studio to send this gentle hand-drawn animated feature into theaters on the exact same day as the last installment of WB’s super-popular “Harry Potter” film series? Is this brilliant counter-programming on Disney’s part? Or will Winnie wind up as the cartoon equivalent of cannon fodder?

Your thoughts?

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  • "Robert -- along with his lovely wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez -- also wrote the score for DAK's charming Finding Nemo - The Musical". - Which I believe is unmemorable and annoying. The artistry in "Nemo The Musical" far surpases this mundane score. Disney needs to find the next Sherman or Ashman/Menken to score their films. I believe that the music can make or break a film. Look at "Princess and the Frog" - a great movie. Can you remember one tune from that film?

  • "Can you remember one tune from that film?"

    Besides "Almost There", "Friends on the Other Side", and "Down in New Orleans?"...

    Are you ready?

  • As a young adult, I think it was unwise to put Pooh up against one of the most beloved franchises of my generation. College-aged kids would love to go see the willy-nilly-silly old bear, but if they have to choose, Harry will win.

  • Only way I can see this as being good for Pooh is if WB lets Deathly Hallows part 2 get by with a PG13. At least one of the previous Potter movies was, and it's hard to imagine the part with the biggest body count wouldn't be PG13 as well.

  • If you're over the age of like 8, there isn't a chance in the world you're not going to see Deathly Hallows II.  That will pretty much be the fillm of the summer that year.  It's the end of the franchise, the most riveting of the bunch, and a multi-gazillion dollar franchise that has way too much crossover potential compared to loveable ol' Pooh.  I mean, if the level of excitement for the land in Universal is any indication then I'm pretty sure Pooh won't win (or even come close that weekend).  The Harry franchise is multi-generational and has unisex appeal.  Pooh really is little kid and mommy-centric.  

  • Did Andy Mooney really need to hear from average moms telling him to return Pooh to his more charming roots, when Disney artists have been saying that for years? Hopefully the moms will also be able to convince Mr. Mooney that Mickey and friends should be revived in funny hand drawn animated cartoons instead of being relegated to being bland, lifeless CGI renditions of their former selves, and forced to work as glorified babysitters to the pre-school set! Again, Disney artists and cartoon fans have been suggesting this for years too. By the way, I don't believe that Andy Mooney should even have a controlling hand in such decisions, as Disney Feature Animation should be at the helm with Consumer Merchandise taking their lead from them instead.

  • I wish people would stop misusing the phrase "Back to the Future".  If you're going back to do something you did before, that's "Back to the Past".

  • Do people really only go to see one movie every year? I'm looking forward to both Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh and am sure they'll both do really well. After all who doesn't love Pooh Bear?

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