In today’s media, there’s often a push for children’s stories to be more energized than those aimed at adults, especially when it comes to film.
This usually manifests itself through aspects like faster pacing, quicker movements and/or animation, and more physical or juvenile jokes. This type of story is not inherently bad, and I do enjoy more frenetic tales at times. Occasionally, though, I just want a calmer story that doesn’t have more modern comedy, nor a high-concept setting, nor a menacing villain. Sometimes, all you really need out of a children’s story is a pleasant set of characters and some charming conversations. And for me, the absolute best example of this is Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a movie that has greatly affected my life, and one that resonates with me even more now that I’m older.
The film, released in 1977, is composed of three previous featurettes, plus a bit of segueing animation. It’s usually viewed in a positive light by both fans and critics, but it rarely receives outright acclaim. I believe that’s because it’s less flashy and high-stakes than other children’s movies. What people so often overlook, though, is that childhood isn’t always action-packed and intense. There isn’t always bitter conflict, and when you’re young, actual evil is far less common than kids’ stories claim. A lot of the time, life is just…simple. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a very simple movie, and that’s why it’s so important to me, and why it’s managed to stick with me all these years.
I should mention that I also love the original Pooh Bear short stories by A. A. Milne. However, I’m going to focus on the first Disney adaptation for a few reasons. Firstly, the film does a great job translating the tone and characters of the books, so there’s no real need to contrast the two media. Additionally, a few things that make the stories so special are exclusive to the Disney version. Overall, while the Disney animated movie is of course indebted to Milne’s children’s classics, the movie has had the most influence on me, and I want to distill why this version is such a wonderful embodiment of what a calming, happy story for children should be like.
Before I delve into everything that makes the movie great, I’ll summarize the plot and setting. Christopher Robin is a young boy who occasionally ventures into the magical Hundred Acre Wood, where he has several friends, all stuffed animals, who live there and love him dearly. Among them are the anxious, bashful Piglet; the controlling, authoritative Rabbit; the motherly Kanga and her enthusiastic son Roo; the hardworking Gopher (a character new to the film); the bouncy, rambunctious Tigger; the gloomy, depressed Eeyore; the thought-to-be-intelligent Owl; and, of course, the pure-hearted, surprisingly wise, “silly old bear,” Winnie the Pooh, or Pooh for short. In addition, there is the Narrator, a person in his own right who breaks the fourth wall and actually interacts with the other characters. The film details the characters’ “adventures” and interactions with each other in a calming, pleasant fashion.
To begin with, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has a highly laidback, tranquil plot, especially when compared to other kid’s films. The pacing is especially barebones: there isn’t one overarching narrative, but rather, several stories intertwined by the same cast of characters. As such, there is no villain, nor a central conflict that the characters must overcome through action or hijinks. Instead, it’s just these charming characters working off each other, having fun, and getting into low-stakes scrapes like being stuck in a hole or getting lost in the woods. The closest thing to an antagonist is just a nightmare Pooh has of “Heffalumps and Woozles,” which are creatures that don’t even exist; they’re just figments of the imagination.
That’s as good a place as any to further delve into the intricacies of the storytelling here. To reiterate, THERE IS NO VILLAIN. The stuffed animals are never given ages, but they’re all dear friends of Christopher Robin and seem to be bonded to him (not to mention the popular theory that the animals are all creations of Christopher’s imagination, and that the boy is only going inside his own mind to play with them, a conjecture I’ll deal with at a later point). Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that they all have child mentalities, as well. That tells us that Pooh is very similar to a child, meaning that his dreams of Heffalumps and Woozles (clearly misnomers of “elephants and weasels,” a fact the movie spells out to the audience) are the embodiments of the fears that a child would have. In other words, the biggest threat the characters must face is their fear of the unknown and their overactive imaginations. Many other kids’ stories feature children as the protagonists, but rarely do you see such a straightforward, action-less conflict. It’s wholly unique in that the childlike protagonists must face issues that childhood viewers must face in the real world, as well.
Additionally, the style of artwork is much calmer and subtler than what modern-day children are used to in movies, especially animated ones. Without getting too much into animation history, Walt Disney Animation Studios lowered their budget and used cost-cutting techniques in their animated movies during the time The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was made, resulting in a sketchier type of artwork that utilized more visuality of pencil drawings. Although partially by necessity, the choice to simplify the animation ended up working in favor of the movie in several ways. The animation now closely resembles the book illustrations of E. H. Shepard, helping to establish a mood that’s heartily in line with the original stories’. Connected to that, the movie subsequently has a warm, wholesomely enjoyable vibe to it rarely found in kinetic, energy-infused stories for kids that overpopulate today’s entertainment. It’s peaceful and calming, but never in a dull way. It’s just…satisfying, and nice. In other words, what childhood often is. Many kids love to pretend to have swordfights and space battles and epic quests of glory, but that pretty much never happens, and that’s okay. Winnie the Pooh shows that the normal, everyday “adventures” you have are wonderful in their own right.
Another brilliant thing about the film is the varied roster of characters, as well as the pitch-perfect casting choices. The fact that all of the many protagonists are so very different means that children can identify with many of them easily. One might find themselves in line with the stubbornness of Rabbit, or the gloominess of Eeyore, or the inflated pride of Owl. The best way for me to convey the effectiveness of the characters is this: I like to say that Tigger is who I wanted to be like when I was little, Pooh Bear is who I want to be like now, and Piglet is who I’m most like in real life. You can connect with many of them, because they’re all so uniquely realistic, albeit in exaggerated ways. The most important thing, though, is that they’re all KIND. None of these creatures are unlikeable or mean-spirited; even when they mess up or get on one another’s nerves, they apologize and quickly become friends again. Going back to antagonism, sometimes children like to have an obviously evil villain to root against, but every once in a while, it’s worth remembering that, if you’re surrounded by friends and good people (or animals), there isn’t really anything worth hating or fearing.
That utterly pure sentimentality is showcased to perfection by the voice actors. Over the years, I have become invested in the art of voice acting, and that’s largely thanks to the fact that Walt Disney Animation Studios reused many actors and actresses in their animated movies. Nearly every actor in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh appears in another Disney movie, and the fun of hearing a voice in this film, then cropping up in another fills me with glee whenever I watch classic Disney movies now. Furthermore, these characters are largely so successful because the people portraying them hone in on precisely what makes them all so uniquely delightful. Ralph Wright nails the gloominess of Eeyore, John Fiedler is the only possible choice for the perpetually nervous and stuttering Piglet, and Paul Winchell is spot-on as the bouncy Tigger. And of course, there’s the absolutely marvelous Sterling Holloway as Winnie the Pooh. Holloway is my favorite voice actor of all time, and one of my favorite actors ever, period. He had numerous other roles in Disney features, but this is his most famous for a reason. He’s just so sweet, innocent, and kind as the Bear of Very Little Brain, and it makes my heart melt whenever I hear his voice. Casting is a factor of film that sometimes gets overlooked, but this movie shows why it’s so integral.
Finally, there’s the quality of timelessness that this story has. A lot of the time, a story is aimed exclusively at one age group, and it’s therefore constrained. Too often, a children’s story is too juvenile; it’s not something you can take in at one time, then come back to years later and enjoy as much as you did before. Either the pop culture references are poorly dated, or the effects and style haven’t held up, or it’s just not as well-written as you remembered. Every so often, though, there’s a story like this one that’s different when you experience it again years later, but in a good way. You appreciate the more nuanced moments and messages even more because you’re old enough to understand the depth of what they mean. It’s like a magic trick: you sit back and wait a bit, and suddenly, all sorts of things that you couldn’t see before come out to delight you. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of those stories. The animation isn’t as flashy or ambitious as other children’s animated movies, but I love that even more now for its calming presence and warm tone. The jokes that involve subtle wordplay aren’t laugh-out-loud, but nowadays I appreciate that softer style of humor; in contrast, jokes involving the Narrator breaking the fourth wall and talking to the characters are much funnier to me as an adult, since I appreciate their cleverness. The songs by the always-brilliant Sherman Brothers are clever and catchy, and they just fill me with warmness and giggles. The story is excessively simple, but hey—when you’ve grown up, and everything seems like it moves at breakneck speed, simple is all you want from a story, and this movie delivers that. It’s a movie that only gets better with each passing year.
It sounds cliché, but The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh really is my childhood. In all honesty, I can’t even say it’s my favorite movie, or even my favorite Disney animated movie. But there isn’t another film, or even another story, that has done more to shape what I appreciate, how I want to act, and who I want to be like. It’s a story that often seems to be liked, but not loved, and I can’t help but think that it’s a little underappreciated simply because…well, because it’s so simple. However, it’s largely thanks to this story that I try to be kind to whoever I can, and attempt to keep a childlike, innocent perspective whenever I do something, and just strive to have a pleasant time in life. I genuinely think if everyone took the time to sit down and enjoy it, they’d remember the basic goodness of what it was like to be a kid, and the joys to be found in the little things. Things like bouncing, and going for walks, and just sitting and doing nothing. Everyone wants to just do nothing every so often, and Winnie the Pooh shows that that isn’t a bad thought. If the last scene of the movie is anything to go by, then it’s clear that childhood is something you should cherish. I certainly do, and I think we all should.