THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Winnie the Pooh’

The one that brought an era to a close.

Throughout its seven decades of animated features and shorts, Walt Disney Animation Studios had created some of the most indelible icons in pop culture history. While it was all started by a mouse named Mickey, Disney’s cavalcade of animated stars had ballooned to dozens upon dozens of adorable animals, brave heroes, and nefarious villains. But if there was one character to challenge Mickey’s status as the face of the studio, it was undoubtedly that chubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff, Winnie the Pooh.

Since making his debut in the 1966 short film Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Pooh had quickly become one of Disney’s most beloved characters, with enduring popularity that only seemed to grow stronger with each new generation of young fans. More importantly, Pooh merchandise was a major cash cow for the studio. With a staggering estimated worth of $5.5 billion, Winnie the Pooh was one of the most valuable franchises in the world.

Winnie the Pooh had remained a constant figure at Disney since the early 90s, with several animated television shows and a host of smaller-scale straight-to-DVD and theatrically-released feature films produced by DisneyToon Studios, which had collectively grossed over $200 million at the worldwide box office. After taking creative control of Disney’s animation department in 2006, John Lasseter felt it was wise for the studio to take advantage of Pooh’s perpetual popularity with a feature film produced by Disney’s A-list team of animators, particularly after the traditional animation department was revived and needed new projects to develop.

In November 2008, Lasseter approached animator/director Stephen J. Anderson and screenwriter Don Hall with the idea of producing a new Pooh feature film. Anderson had been with Disney for over a decade as a supervising animator on films like Tarzan, Brother Bear, and The Emperor’s New Groove, while also making his directorial debut with 2007’s Meet the Robinsons. Hall had also been with the studio since the late 90s, significantly contributing to the creations of films likes The Princess and the Frog, Home on the Range, and Chicken Little.

The pair were both hugely enthusiastic at Lasseter’s concept and immediately accepted the project. In early 2009, Anderson, Hall, and Lasseter spent hours viewing every Pooh short film, television series, and feature film to assist with their creation of the new film, which would simply be titled Winnie the Pooh. Later that year, Anderson, Hall, and key members of the production team spent several days in Sussex, England to explore Ashdown Forest, which was the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood in A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh stories. The team took photographs, video footage, and drew sketches of the countryside to provide references for the film’s animation.

Upon their return, Anderson and Hall enlisted legendary veteran Disney animator Burny Mattinson to serve as the lead storyboard artist on Winnie the Pooh. Mattinson had been with the studio since 1953 and worked as a key animator on the 1974 Oscar-nominated short Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. Mattinson is still a member of the studio to this day and is officially recognised as the longest-serving employee of The Walt Disney Company. With his guidance and personal experience, the team began crafting the narrative of Winnie the Pooh.

While 1977’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was a collection of three existing short films interlinked with an overarching narrative, Winnie the Pooh would exist as a standalone feature, taking elements from several of Milne’s books to create a new storyline. While out searching for his beloved “hunny,” Pooh and his friends would embark on an adventure to locate Eeyore’s missing tail. During the hunt, the group believes Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by a mysterious monster called The Backson and set out to rescue their dear friend.

For the voice cast, the natural choice for Pooh and Tigger was legendary voiceover artist Jim Cummings, who had been voicing both characters since 1988 and 2000 respectively after the retirement of the characters’ original voice actors, Hal Smith and Paul Winchell. This was also the case with Piglet, who would be voiced by Travis Oates. Oates had taken over the role after the death of original voice actor John Fiedler in 2005. For the role of Owl, the filmmakers enlisted comedian and late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, while Tom Kenny was hired for the role of Rabbit. Kenny is best known for voicing the title character in the SpongeBob SquarePants television series and films.

While Peter Cullen had the character of Eeyore since 1988, the actor was currently busy voicing Optimus Prime in Transformers: Dark of the Moon at the time of production. The filmmakers instead chose veteran Pixar animator Bud Luckey to voice the role. Luckey had been with Pixar since 1990 and had worked as a key animator on films like the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille. Luckey had also provided the voice of Rick Dicker in The Incredibles and Chuckles the Clown in Toy Story 3. After his death in 2018 at the age of 83, Lasseter dedicated Incredibles 2 in his memory and called him the “one of the true unsung heroes of animation.”

Rounding out the voice cast were Kristen-Anderson Lopez as Kanga, who was also the composer of the film’s original songs with her husband Robert (we’ll get to them shortly), and child actors Jack Boulter and Wyatt Hall (who is also the son of director Don Hall) as Christopher Robin and Roo respectively. Anderson and Hall enlisted legendary comedian John Cleese to narrate the film, with the filmmakers feeling his native British accent would add a touch of authenticity and sophistication to the film.

At the completion of production on The Princess and the Frog, the majority of the animation team joined the production of Winnie the Pooh. These included veteran Disney animators Mark Henn, who served as the supervising animator for Pooh and Christopher Robin, Andreas Deja, who was responsible for the animation of Tigger, Eric Goldberg, who was tasked with animating Rabbit and the Backson, and Bruce W. Smith, who was the supervising animator for Piglet, Kanga, and Roo.

For the animation of Winnie the Pooh, the animators utilised Toon Boom Harmony software, which was the same technology used in the production of The Princess and the Frog. The initial drawings were made with pencil and paper, which were then scanned into the software to be digitally manipulated, inked, and painted. The team spent weeks closely studying the animation cels of the original Winnie the Pooh shorts to capture the essence of the classic designs, while still updating the final drawings for modern animation.

In their search for the right songwriters for the film’s original music, Anderson and Hall approached five songwriting teams and sent sketches and story elements to use as the inspiration for demo recordings. The directors fell in love with the demo recordings they received from songwriting duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who had previously worked with Lasseter on the theme park musical adaptation of Finding Nemo. The pair ultimately created six original songs for the film, while television star and musician Zoey Deschanel was enlisted to perform the film’s original Winnie the Pooh theme song. Deschanel also wrote and performed the film’s closing credits song “So Long” with her She & Him bandmate M.Ward.

Lasseter and Disney CEO Bob Iger were so impressed with the songs written by the Lopezes, they approached the duo and pitched them the plot of Disney’s upcoming animated musical adaptation of The Snow Queen, which later became known as Frozen. After the pair agreed to join the production, they would later win an Academy Award for composing the earworm song “Let It Go.” Winnie the Pooh marked the beginning of a major collaboration between the studio and the songwriting duo, who went on to compose songs for Pixar’s Coco (which netted the pair their second Oscar) and Frozen II.

Winnie the Pooh was released on July 15, 2011, to generally positive reviews from critics. The Los Angeles Times felt the film “proves a fitting tribute to one of the last century’s most enduring children’s tales,” TIME magazine called it “classically Disney, as if Walt himself were reading us a story,” while Roger Ebert noted, “in a time of shock-value 3-D animation and special effects, the look of the film is gentle and pleasing.”

Despite these favourable reviews, Winnie the Pooh was ultimately a box office dud, namely due to the unfathomable decision to release the film on the same opening weekend as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. Winnie the Pooh grossed just $26.7 million in the U.S. with a further $23.4 million elicited internationally for a tepid total worldwide gross of $50.1 million. This was the lowest-grossing Disney animated feature film since The Rescuers Down Under in 1990. While the film only cost $30 million to produce, Disney spent around $50 million in marketing costs, meaning it ultimately proved to be a financial loss for the studio.

In the annals of Disney animation history, Winnie the Pooh is a decidedly strange little film At only 63 minutes long, it’s the second shortest Disney animated feature, beaten only by Dumbo by one minute. This makes the film the perfect distraction for young ones, but hardly proves its necessity to be released in cinemas. In saying that, it’s a nice change to see a film know its limitations and wrap up quickly before the experience proves too tiresome.

It’s a breezily enjoyable detour from the usual big-budget animated blockbusters that throw all sorts of special effects and lavish musical numbers at you for over 90 minutes. The filmmakers keenly understood the simplicity of Winnie the Pooh’s adventures and sought to recapture the magic that made him such an icon of the Disney studio. The narrative is short and sweet, with the barest of complications for its characters. The animation is nostalgic and luscious, perfectly echoing the gorgeous designs of the past animated shorts. And the voice cast is delightfully endearing, particularly Cummings as the titular little bear.

The animators even manage to create two wildly inventive sequences that deserve more adoration than they receive. During the performance of “The Backson Song,” we’re treated to a spectacular “chalk-drawn” sequence that pays homage to the “Heffalumps and Woozles” number in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Later, we’re treated to a decidedly surrealist sequence where Pooh experiences a psychedelic dream throughout the number “Everything is Honey.” The animation in both these scenes is genuinely stunning and perfectly showcases the dazzling skills of those working in traditional animation for one final time.

And that’s ultimately the sad legacy of Winnie the Pooh, in that it would stand as Disney’s final traditionally animated feature film. After the film essentially flopped at the box office, Disney abandoned plans for any further traditional animation films. Once again, the days of “hand-drawn” animation were at an end, with the 2D animation department shut down and several veteran animators leaving the Disney studio for a second time. We can dream they will change their mind one day, but the middling box office numbers of Winnie the Pooh proved it was time for Disney to move on. Rest in peace, traditional animation.

Is Winnie the Pooh a Disney Classic? While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Winnie the Pooh, it’s always a treat to venture back to the Hundred Acre Wood to revisit the gorgeous cast of characters who have been delighting audiences for over five decades. While Pooh himself is undoubtedly a Disney Classic in his own right, you can’t quite say the same for his 2011 feature film.

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