Since taking over the reins as the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006, John Lasseter has quietly overseen something of a renaissance within the ranks of the once venerable House of Mouse.
Prior to his arrival, Disney’s animation division had backed itself into a corner, producing ill-advised direct-to-DVD sequels to many of their past classics, alongside underwhelming theatrical releases that barely registered on the public’s radar.
Ironically, the decline of the mainstream Disney brand coincided with the debut of a certain computer animation company, which released its debut feature in 1995. That company was Pixar, the film was Toy Story and its director was none other than Lasseter himself.
Under Lasseter’s control, Disney Animation has slowly but surely increased the quality of its animated features output with the release of such new movies as Bolt (2008), The Princess And The Frog (2009)and more recently Tangled (2010). However, with the release of Winnie The Pooh, Lasseter has attempted the very thing that studios all over are trying with depressing regularity: the reboot.
Well, okay, maybe a reboot is too strong a word, but clearly the intention here is not only to reposition Pooh as a major Disney title, but also draw a line under the succession of mediocre spin-offs that the brand had become associated with over the past decade.
To underline this back to basics approach, this new film is the first since 1977’s The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh to actually be based upon AA Milne’s original works, although these are blended together, in much the same way that Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories are cherry picked by movie makers, to create a coherent cinematic narrative.
However, these types of children’s movies aren’t defined by the elegance of their plotting or the complexity of their characters, but rather by the ingenuity of their execution, the purity of their spirit and the ability to slide in a joke or a visual gag that the parents will enjoy just a little bit more than the kids. And it’s on all these counts that Winnie The Pooh scores highly.
From the use of John Cleese as the narrator through to the merging of storybook tropes with more postmodern storytelling techniques, this new Pooh movie manages to tap into a gentle and lyrical surrealism that manages to be both old fashioned, and yet oddly modern at the same time. It’s a tricky balancing act, but the directorial duo of Stephen Anderson and Don Hall and their story team, headed up by Disney veteran, Burny Mattinson, manage to pull it off with aplomb.
Wisely keeping the same hand-drawn animation style and design that Disney has used on the Pooh cartoons since the 60s, this new version benefits from a makeover in terms of colour palette, which gives the film a vibrant, storybook quality that at once evokes the characters past, but also places it in the same frame as more recent hand-drawn films such as Miyazaki’s Ponyo.
Sadly, the one weak spot in the film lies in the music. From the somewhat unremarkable and bland Henry Jackman score to Zooey Deschanel’s overly twee version of The Sherman Brothers’ classic theme, the music and songs uniformly fail to reach the level of sophistication and quality of the visuals.
The sole exception to this is the highly successful Everything Is Honey sequence, which finds Pooh summoning up an Esther Williams-inspired dream sequence while singing about his desire for the eponymous sweet stuff. It’s an excellent little passage in the film and one where the music lifts the visual storytelling, rather than merely underscoring or ‘singing along’ with what we’re seeing.
Voice work throughout is of a uniformly high standard, with Jim Cummings very strong as both Pooh and Tigger, while Craig Ferguson makes for a hugely entertaining and blustering Owl.
All in all, Winnie The Pooh is an extremely well made, incredibly charming little film which doesn’t outstay its welcome (clocking in at a brisk 63 minutes) and delivers a classy, stylish and warm-hearted half-term treat for the very (and not so) little ones.
Those who prefer their animation to be more frenetic, incident driven and fuelled by a more cynical and cutting sense of humour should probably give this a wide berth. But if you’re in the mood for a more pastoral and gentle experience, then this trip into the Hundred Acre Wood comes highly recommended.
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.