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WINNIE THE POOH (2011) (***1/2)

This might be the gutsiest release of the summer. Theatrical films geared toward the preschool and slightly above set are rarely made today. They usually dwell in the land of direct-to-video. Pooh is Disney's biggest merchandising producer. Every preschooler has something Pooh related in their room. But once the kid hits school, is Pooh cool? That's why this is a difficult sell. But those who buy a ticket will be transported into a simple timeless production filled with wit and whimsy.

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This might be the gutsiest release of the summer. Theatrical films geared toward the preschool and slightly above set are rarely made today. They usually dwell in the land of direct-to-video. Pooh is Disney's biggest merchandising producer. Every preschooler has something Pooh related in their room. But once the kid hits school, is Pooh cool? That's why this is a difficult sell. But those who buy a ticket will be transported into a simple timeless production filled with wit and whimsy.

John Cleese provides the narration for this tale of Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), the imaginative boy who brings his toys to life in the Hundred Acre Woods. While looking for the lost tail of Eeyore (Bud Luckey, BOUNDIN’), Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) discovers a note at Christopher Robin’s tree house. He takes it to Owl (Craig Ferguson, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON), who misinterprets it as a kidnap note. The veracious beast the Backson (which sounds a lot like Back Soon) has taken the young boy, so it is up to Pooh and friends to set a trap for the monster.

Based on several of A.A. Milne’s original stories, the Disney writing team, which includes directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall and five others, do a remarkable job weaving the narratives together in a cohesive singular story. Misunderstands create humorous tension, which drives the story forward. Milne’s rich characters and witty word play come through delightfully. When all of today’s children’s entertainment seems to be one big pop culture reference fest, it is refreshing to see something that has a literary base.

The production also keeps true to the classic visual style, having gone back to E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for inspiration and keeping the Disney look for the characters. In one great moment, Pooh is distracted by his rumbling tummy and walks right off the paragraph and into the next. Text itself plays a key role in the design. It also comes in handy to have a word or two when you find yourself at the bottom of a pit.

Part of the joy of WINNIE THE POOH is the characters. Pooh says he is a bear with little brains and that big words scare him. But what he lacks in common sense he certainly makes up for in heart. But that is countered with his manipulative side. He’s always trying to negotiate some hunny out of someone. Eeyore’s gloomy demeanor is the perfect counter to Pooh’s optimism. And he’s the complete opposite to the manic energy of Tigger (Jim Cummings). Who is remarkably animated by Andreas Deja. If animators could win acting awards, he should win one for his work here. Ferguson is great at giving Owl the know it all attitude when in reality he’s the dumbest of the lot. Piglet (Travis Oates) is the scaredy cat who lets his emotions mix things up for him. Rabbit (Tom Kenny, SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS) is just exasperated by them all.

While the songs are forgettable (even the oh so sweet ones from actress/songwriter Zooey Deschanel), they never drown the film in honey. The highlight would be the Tigger transforming Eeyore into Tigger #2 number and the low point would be Pooh’s extended honey obsessed dream sequence. By that point in the film, we kind of already got the point that he loves the sweet stuff. Padding should be in Pooh’s sown up belly and not a 69 minute film.

The escapades the characters get wrapped up in are all based around naivety and innocence. Like children (they are the creations of one you know), they try to interpret the world the best they can, but sometimes they get it wrong. The scenarios are clever, cleverer than most adult comedies, which often use vulgarity as a blunt force against our funny bones. What WINNIE THE POOH accomplishes is much harder.

PS… stay till the end of the credits to discover Huell Howser gets a voice credit in the film.

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Rick DeMott
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