THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’

The one that crowned a new Disney icon.

In his 65 years on this earth, Walt Disney had numerous credits and achievements to his name. The creator of Mickey Mouse. The visionary behind the birth of feature-length animated films. The winner of 22 Academy Awards from 59 nominations, making him the most awarded and nominated individual in Oscars history. The mastermind behind Disneyland. And that’s just a taste of Walt’s incredible four-decade career. But there was something which meant more to Walt than anything in his illustrious career; his two daughters, Sharon and Diane.

Despite the fame and success which came with his job, Walt took his role as father incredibly seriously, and, by all accounts, was a deeply devoted parent to his two adoring girls. Walt and his wife Lillian kept their daughters out of the public eye as much as possible, desperately wanting both Sharon and Diane to have as normal an upbringing as possible. In a curious twist, it was Walt’s connection to his two daughters which inspired two of his most beloved works.

One of Sharon and Diane’s favourite pastimes was reading, particularly P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins book series and A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories. After Walt noted his daughters’ love of both series, he promised them the Disney studio would adapt both novels one day. As fate would have it, Walt would spend over 20 years desperately attempting to fulfil that very promise. If that isn’t evidence of his devotion to his two daughters, nothing is.

In 1938, Walt expressed an interest in obtaining the film rights to Winnie-the-Pooh from Milne, who bluntly turned Walt down. Milne had sold the U.S. and Canadian television and merchandising rights to producer and licensing pioneer Stephen Slesinger, who feared a Disney animated feature film would monopolise the brand. Following Slesinger and Milne’s deaths in 1953 and 1956 respectively, Walt again tried his luck, finally obtaining the film rights from Slesinger’s widow in June 1961.

Almost immediately, Walt announced plans to produce a feature-length animated film based on Milne’s books. Walt assigned perennial Disney collaborators Larry Clemmons and Ken Anderson to flesh out a script and storyboard potential animated sequences. However, during a meeting in 1964 where Clemmons and Anderson presented around two-thirds of the film’s total storyboards, Walt grew concerned over the inescapable fact Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh novels simply weren’t as well known in the U.S. as they were in the UK and Europe.

Fearing American audiences wouldn’t warm to an unknown property, Walt made the difficult decision to shelve his plans for a feature film and instead split the project into three featurette-style short films which could be attached to screen with upcoming Disney live-action films. By introducing America to Pooh and his loveable friends through animated shorts, Walt would then be more comfortable with releasing a full-length feature film at some point in the future. Sadly, he would never live to see that day.

In essence, the eventual 1977 feature-film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a return to the era of the Disney package films of the 1940s, with the anthology film featuring three previously released animated shorts tied together with new prologue and epilogue animation to allow the stories to flow into one overall narrative. It would also technically stand as the final Disney animated feature film with any personal involvement from Walt, given the first short was released prior to his death and he was heavily in the production of the second before his passing.

The first short, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree was based on the first two chapters of Milne’s first book and introduced the titular bear, his beloved best friend Christopher Robin, and Pooh’s gang of animal pals (although Tigger and Piglet are noticeably absent), who all reside in the Hundred Acre Wood. Hungry for his favourite food “hunny”, Pooh attempts to raid a beehive in a tall tree. After failing miserably, he ventures to Rabbit’s house and promptly eats all of his honey, making Pooh too bloated to leave when he’s stuck in Rabbit’s entry hole.

For the voice of the Pooh, Walt turned to perennial Disney voiceover artist Sterling Holloway to bring the adorable bear to life. As the illustrations by E. H. Shepard in Milne’s books were considered iconic in the UK and Europe, Walt instructed his animation team to keep their character designs consistent with Shepard’s work, albeit still in line with Disney’s typical animation style. The team adopted Pooh’s now-signature red shirt from Slesinger’s licensed products and a new Disney icon was born.

Walt enlisted songwriting brothers Robert and Richard Sherman to write the music for the animated short, with the duo crafting five tracks including a titular theme song which quickly became synonymous with the entire Winnie the Pooh brand. For the film’s instrumental score, Buddy Baker drew heavy inspiration from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, assigning different instruments to represent each of the characters; baritone horn for Pooh, bass clarinet for Eeyore, oboe for Rabbit, flute for Kanga, piccolo for Roo, bass harmonica for Gopher, and French horn for Owl.

The short was released on February 4, 1966, as a supplement to Disney’s live-action comedy The Ugly Dachshund. In the UK, the short was pair with a re-release of Peter Pan on April 18, 1966. While American critics and audiences reacted strongly to the introduction of Pooh, British critics weren’t quite convinced, taking exception with the “Americanisation” of an icon of British literature. Shepard is even said to have called the adaptation a “travesty.”

Regardless, Pooh was now considered a favourite amongst Disney’s treasure trove of animated characters, with booming merchandise sales eliciting heavy profits for the studio. As such, Walt commissioned a second animated short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day shortly before his death in December 1966. Production officially began in mid-1967 with the story team basing the short on several chapters from Milne’s original novel and its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner.

After backlash from British and European audiences over their absence from the first animated short, Tigger and Piglet were front and centre in the second featurette. Reitherman remained more faithful to the source material in his second short, with the narrative following Pooh and his friends through a chaotic day of high winds, heavy rains, and a flood in the Hundred Acre Wood. The Sherman Brothers once again provided original songs for the short including “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers” and “Heffalumps and Woozles.”

The short was released on December 20, 1968, as a supplement to Disney’s live-action comedy The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit. The reaction was enormously positive, even managing to win over British and European critics with its more faithful adaptation to Milne’s original work and the introduction of Tigger, who quickly became as popular as the short’s titular bear. On April 14, 1969, the short won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject – Cartoons, which was awarded to Walt posthumously, marking his 22nd and final Oscar win.

The third short, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too played on the booming popularity of Tigger, essentially making him the star of his own animated featurette. Primarily based on the fourth and seventh chapters of The House at Pooh Corner, the short finds Rabbit tired of Tigger’s constant bouncing. Rabbit enlists Pooh and Tigger to craft a scheme to “get the bounce out of Tigger” for good, leading to the poor tiger becoming stuck high up in a tree.

The short was released on December 20, 1974, as a supplement to Disney’s live-action action-fantasy The Island at the Top of the World. The animated featurette was nominated for Best Short Subject – Cartoons at the 47th Academy Awards, but lost to the claymation short Closed Mondays. However, the companion soundtrack featuring the Sherman Brothers’ songs “The Honey Tree” and “Birthday, Birthday” won the Grammy Award for Best Album for Children, which was awarded to voiceover artists Holloway, Paul Winchell, and Sebastian Cabot.

This brings us to the late 1970s and a time when Walt Disney Productions were still highly anxious of releasing new feature-length animated films. Despite the relative box office success of Robin Hood, studio executives decided to play it safe with their next feature film and fall back to the inexpensive anthology/package films of the 1940s. By stitching three existing Winnie the Pooh animated shorts together, the studio was able to keep production costs to a bare minimum.

In a rather ingenious decision, the shorts of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh were linked together through the framing device of existing within one singular Winnie the Pooh book, much to the dismay of Milne purists who knew such a book did not exist. The film opens inside a live-action version of Christopher Robin’s bedroom where we enter the animated world of that very book. Several times throughout the shorts, the animation becomes somewhat meta, as it interacts with the text within the pages of the book, which further connected to the film’s framing device.

Based on the final chapter of The House of Pooh Corner, the film also added a two-and-a-half-minute epilogue sequence to bring the overarching story to a close. In a rather melancholy moment, we witness Christopher Robin informing Pooh it’s time for him to grow up and leave the Hundred Acre Wood. As the two friends bid their final farewell, Pooh promises to be waiting for Christopher whenever he returns. This formed the basis for the live-action 2018 sequel, Christopher Robin where a now-adult Christopher ventures back to his childhood playland.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was released on March 11, 1977, as a double bill with Disney’s live-action family drama The Littlest Horse Thieves. Strangely, there are no box office results or critics’ reviews available for the film’s initial release. However, given the booming popularity of Winnie the Pooh which preceded the film, it’s hard to imagine it was a flop.

In the years that followed, Pooh has become one of Disney’s most profitable and valuable assets, with Pooh merchandise even outselling Mickey Mouse paraphernalia, at one point. Winnie and his pals are constant figures at Disney theme parks, with several locations featuring wildly popular Pooh attractions. The merchandise continues to be a massive cash cow for the studio, with Variety listing the Winnie the Pooh franchise as the third most valuable in the world, behind Star Wars and Disney Princesses and The New York Times estimating its current worth at a staggering $5.5 billion.

In terms of quality, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of the best-animated features of this era, even if it’s somewhat of a cheat to consider it a true feature-length animated film. Coupled with the spectacular voiceover work, the character designs of Pooh and his many animal friends are genuinely masterful, creating some of the most endearing characters in Disney history. The wonderfully bizarre animation found in the “Heffalumps and Woozles” dream sequence is iconic for its bold use of surrealist imagery that’s up there with some of the wackiest (and occasionally terrifying) animated work Disney ever created.

An adorably lovable icon, Winnie the Pooh stands tall as one of the most cherished animated characters in Disney history. While there are some who took exception with Disney’s adaptation of Milne’s beloved novels, the shorts and resulting anthology film capture the immense heart and warmth found within Milne’s work. In an era of uncertainty, Pooh proved animation was still the core foundation of the Disney studio, paving the way for the eventual late 1980s renaissance that beckons ever closer in the distance.

Is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh a Disney Classic? While it’s easy to dismiss The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh as another cheap package film that can’t match the narrative power of one feature-length story, it’s impossible not to enjoy spending 74 minutes within the Hundred Acre Wood. The film cemented Pooh as an icon of the Disney studio, so it must be considered a Disney Classic.

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