Disney has done plenty right by the Hundred Acre Wood gang in its latest bigscreen outing, preserving the traditional hand-drawn appearance and gently whimsical storytelling of the A.A. Milne-based series in an era of CG-animated, 3D-accentuated excess. Yet while it will do its part to cultivate a new generation of fans, this soothingly short 69-minute picture boasts a few touches that, if not exactly crass, have been applied with perhaps too knowing a wink, resulting in a slightly condescending aftertaste. Moppets of course won’t mind, and parents will prove similarly indulgent, spelling another lucrative homevid Pooh-rennial following strong theatrical play.
Bowing Wednesday in Europe in advance of its July 15 Stateside opening, this is the first Disney toon to be released under the simple title of “Winnie the Pooh,” which may prime family audiences to expect a new classic or at least a more involving adventure than they may have gotten out of “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.” Unlike the trio of excellent standalone shorts that made up 1977’s “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” still the best introduction to the series, the story here (credited to eight writers) weaves three Milne-inspired tales into one pleasant if undistinguished yarn, replete with lessons in friendship, teamwork and the importance of putting others’ needs first.
After a new version of the Sherman Bros.’ title tune sung by Zooey Deschanel, the story begins, as usual, with Pooh awakening to a new day and an empty stomach. Setting out to rectify this sad if perpetual state of affairs, the bear of very little brain but considerable heart stumbles upon Eeyore, looking even glummer than usual after having misplaced his tail. Naturally, Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Kanga and Roo come to the rescue, initiating a contest to see who can find the morose donkey a new rear appendage — the prize for which, somewhat improbably if temptingly for Pooh, is a fresh pot of honey.
But the matter of Eeyore’s tail is momentarily forgotten once Pooh and his friends, misled by Owl’s iffy reading-comprehension skills, come to believe Christopher Robin has been abducted by the Backson, an ugly, ill-mannered monster that looms ever more fearsomely in their imaginations in “The Backson Song” (the most memorable of the original tunes penned by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez). Performed over an inventive montage of quick-moving chalkboard drawings, this interlude is one of two musical sequences conceived and animated in a bolder, more fanciful style, the other being “Everything Is Honey,” in which Pooh finds himself in a golden-hued wonderland where everything is made of something sweet.
Elsewhere, directors Stephen Anderson (“Meet the Robinsons”) and Don Hall stick to a visual palette that, under Paul Felix’s art direction, retains the two-dimensional, watercolor-based style of the classic Pooh adventures, albeit polished to a high-tech gloss that in no way compromises its retro charm. The desire to stay true to what was lovable and enduring about the originals is palpable throughout, down to the amusing storybook conceit of having the characters interact not only with the narrator (voiced by John Cleese), but also with the letters and punctuation marks on the page.
Given the obvious and affectionate care taken in all departments, the unwelcome tone the film occasionally adopts toward some of its characters is all the more surprising. While the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood have always been endearing in their gullibility, there are instances here when the story seems to take too much pleasure in their lack of sophistication, exaggerating certain character traits for laughs of a crueler-than-usual variety. Piglet may be a worrywart, but he’s not the hapless incompetent he’s made out to be, in one of a handful of scenes that momentarily spoil the mood of earnest sincerity so clearly being aimed for.
Craig Ferguson’s turn as the plummy, loquacious Owl reps the starriest addition to an expert voice cast led by Jim Cummings, again doing Pooh/Tigger double duty as he has on the past several features, TV series and videogames derived from this ever-profitable property.