With friendly new additions to the Hundred Acre Wood in Poohs Heffalump Movie, Greg Singer reports that the demise of hand-drawn animation has been exaggerated.
If youve ever read the original Pooh stories by A.A. Milne (circa 1926), youll remember that, firstly, they are endearing; and, secondly, there was no Heffalump, per se. There was, of course, the bothersome worry that a Heffalump might exist, and that the monstrosity was tromping through the Hundred Acre Wood. This caused both Pooh and Piglet a great amount of fret, and they hit upon the Clever Idea to dig a Very Deep Pit and to capture the awful creature. When no Heffalump was to be found ho ho! tra la la! an embarrassed Piglet briefly considered running off to sea to become a sailor.
How do you find something that doesnt exist, whether its a unicorn or weapons of mass destruction? Simple. Never stop believing. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In the case of Disney, it is a time-honored tradition to draw upon (and expand upon) the worlds folktales and literature in creating its cartoon mythos.
Walt Disney had bought the rights to the Pooh books in 1961, and the first featurette starring the huggable characters, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, was released in 1966. A second featurette, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject. Two other featurettes Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974) and Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore (1983) along with numerous holiday specials and a long-running television series extended the Pooh province.
Usually, I am not a fan of interminable sequels. From a business standpoint, sure, it makes sense. (The executive banter in my head: How are we going to keep the franchise flourishing? How are we going to wring every last nickel from this intellectual property?) But from an artistic standpoint, I am a little wary if not just weary. The idea of sequels, with some notable exceptions, bores the heck out of me.
Not so with Poohs Heffalump Movie. I liked it. It was cute. And, not unimportantly, I saw it for free. There were some definite aww moments among the mixed-age crowd, and I am comfortable enough with my masculinity to admit that I even got a little teary-eyed there (just for a second!) toward the end. Maybe it was the smog.
I remember when this movie was just wee storyboards, still dressed in diapers, alternately giggling and ready to crap itself. The consensus of those who have worked on the film, and audiences who have seen it, is that the movie is wholesome fun. Settling into the squeaky seats and sticky floors of the local cinema house, I was happy as a tummy full of honey to see some decent hand-drawn animation on the silver screen.
When DisneyToon Studios closed its Tokyo animation unit in June 2004 which had previously produced Piglets Big Movie (2003) and The Tigger Movie (2000) the Japanese artists and management soon re-grouped under the independent auspices of The Answer Studio. Poohs Heffalump Movie was the last project of the team before being dispatched, and now the Pacific Rim job of producing DVD-premieres and smaller theatrical releases falls mostly to Disneys Australian animation facility.
Even though the state of the industry may at times be unbearably scareably, it would seem that reports of the demise of hand-drawn animation have been exaggerated. Who wouldnt want to spend an afternoon in the Hundred Acre Wood, and to be home by teatime?
Roo the Day
The movie begins, appropriately, with its head in the clouds, reminiscent of an innocent time when we actively sought to discern pictures on that airy canvas. Down below, the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood awake to the frightfully foreign footprints of well, such a threatening, intruding behemoth could only be one thing a Heffalump!
Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore each in their own way are somewhat frenzied for what to do, but Roo seems genuinely excited to set out on an expedition to find the fabled beast. Rabbit, busily looking important, co-opts Roos suggestion and organizes a search to catch the first-ever Heffalump. Rabbit excuses Roo from this heroic adventure because, naturally, it could be fraught with danger. Tigger consoles the poor lad, saying, You cant argue with a word like fraught.
Fortunately there are other words in the movie, encouraging and exuberant words like kerplunk and rumple-doodle. Tucking him into sleep with some bedside reading, Roos mum, Kanga, wonders with her little one if the expedition would really be so terrible? (Apparently, the marsupials in the story are the only ones with a hint of reason, in contradistinction to the overly emotional placental mammals. Perhaps this is why Owl is noticeably absent; even for a bird, his head would be screwed on too straight.)
Here we see the first crystallization of the A story of the film the notion that others arent as awful as we might presume, and that we should do our best to get along. The B story emerging is that children grow up oh-so-fast, but, as Kanga advises Roo, it cant happen all at once; it takes its time. Roo simply wants to grow up now, because he is certain that he could catch a Heffalump if given a chance.
In the book, even if there was a glint of gleeful curiosity to catch a Heffalump, they lived only in the realm of ones fearful and excitable imagination. In the movie, however, they are very, very real, and our friends from Pooh Corner are exhorted to be brave in the face of dire uncertainty. It is time to save their homes their land of milk and honey! (Especially the honey.)
The following morning, in advance of the official expedition, wearing a paper helmet and an armful of rope, Roo sets off to Heffalump Hollow a part of the forest adjoining the Hundred Acre Wood to catch a peek, at least, of anything heffalumpish that may be lurking there. The troop of Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Rabbit and Eeyore follows shortly after, and as they cautiously manage their way across the dividing fence, a strange idea dawns on them. Both sides of the forest seem, unexpectedly, just about the same. So far!
The movie hits all of its beats in a well-paced way, and soon enough Roo happens upon a Heffalump youngster. Roo incredulously wonders, Are you sure youre a Heffalump? Where are your horns and spiky tail? Heffalumps have names? Why, yes, quite so. In this case: Heffridge Trumpler Brompet Heffalump the Third or, Lumpy for short.
To be sure, Lumpy looks like he was born ready to be a plush toy. (The inner executive child: Think of the ancillary sales!) As with Kanga, the stitching is apparent on the characters seams, making him right at home with the kinds of dolls that inspired the original Pooh stories.
By a believable twist, it turns out that Lumpy is just as afraid of the Hundred Acre Wood as the inhabitants there are of Heffalump Hollow. Where, by the way, did he learn such nonsense? Its just one of those things that everybody knows, yknow? There is a creature that bounces around on its tail and smashes things. Another one that shakes all the time. And a third animal with pointy ears who bosses everyone. Though there is some truth to it, Roo promises there is nothing scary in his nook of the woods, and even Rabbit can be pleasant once you get to know him. But I dont want to get to know him, Lumpy says, unconvinced. Do I have to?
Roo and Lumpy, yearning to grow up and to find their own voice (their own calling), are both beyond the borders of their parents protection and concern. As their friendship takes hold, what Roo perceives firstly as a nondescript Heffalump becomes personalized as Lumpy, and, in proper time, affectionately as Lumpster. Roo thus tells Lumpy that he is not captured anymore.
The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand. In times of love, this is a good thing. In times of war, less so. Back in the Hundred Acre Wood, Rabbit and the rest of the gang prepare for the worst. To catch a Heffalump, does one whistle at them, or leave haycorns in wait? Heffalumps are fierce, so the only solution is to set traps everywhere!
The thread of the story is spun tighter, by degrees. The characters edge their way toward the realization that, while outwardly it may appear otherwise, we are all essentially the same at heart: we get scared, love honey and like to bounce. (Depending on whom you ask.) The protagonists relinquish the fearful need to control the other, and to lead them on a tether according to a willful sense of good and right.
I dont want to spoil the end for those yet to see the movie, but suffice to say it involves a fair amount of on-screen trumpeting and off-screen kids clapping their happy approval.
Rabbit asks of Lumpy, in his roundabout way, Can you ever forgive us for acting so badly?
Heffa Nice Day
Ah, yes. Forgiveness. Thats a nice sentiment.
In the end, the inhabitants of Pooh Corner realize that Heffalumps arent dangerous, after all; they are simply different. What was all the fuss? Nobody had actually seen or known one, but their imagination was eager to fill in the blanks with shades of worry and doubt and fear oh my!
Until now, the fact that Heffalumps are such awful creatures was a given. Everyone had always said so, and believed so. It was one of those unexamined assumptions that can, and often does, lead to a whole lot of smarts (which, in its way, is dumb).
As Tigger says, False alarm as in, never mind.
Poohs Heffalump Movie directed by Frank Nissen, written by Brian Hohlfeld and Evan Spiliotopoulos is a cuddly condensation of a worldly prejudice. Most parents (or at least the idealized ones) hope for the best and brightest future for their children. Kanga and Mama Heffalump, in allowing their kids to play together, are probably doing more than their small part to promote good relations within the forest community, sowing the seeds for mutual well being.
Our nasty reality is that we spend untold resources and creative genius in dreaming up better and more efficient ways to keep each other at arms length. One wonders if it would be beneficial to spend some of that time and energy oh, I dunno in learning to understand and respect and (dare I say it?) love one another.
This is only a cartoon, though, and I am sure that Disney did not intend to moralize that fear and ignorance are weapons of mass destruction or, at least, the beginnings thereof.
All said, the screening I attended had children and adults chuckling, with tykes literally bobbing in their seats in time with the music. (Yes, there are songs.) Though, to be honest, there was one gentleman with a power-tool snore, lumbering a few rows back. (Alas, we can turn off our pagers and cell phones, but when neighboring patrons turn off, it is an interruption of a different sort.) By movies end, as the credits rolled, there was an audible yaay ascending from the kids in the crowd.
As the narrator of the movie, Pooh says, We set out to catch Lumpy, but in the end, he captured us. For lovers of the watercolor world of Winnie, the Pooh hits the fan in all of us.
Look for the direct-to-DVD Poohs Heffalump Halloween later this year. (Cue executive: Cha-ching!)
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.