Disney has had its hand in the Winnie the Pooh honey pot since founding father Walt, at the urging of his young daughters, bought the rights to the Pooh books from A.A. Milne in 1961. Since then, children have seen many incarnations of the tubby little cubby and one might think there isn’t anything new to glean.
Then comes “The Book of Pooh.” The newest addition to Playhouse Disney, a programming block designed for preschoolers, “The Book of Pooh” utilizes a back to basics story approach and incorporates the mesmerizing look of Bunraku, a form of Japanese puppetry that dates back 300 years.
In addition to the new look and feel of Pooh is a new character, a friendly bluebird named Kessie who joins the ensemble in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Creator and director Mitchell Kriegman, the inspiration behind the award-winning “Bear in the Big Blue House,” doesn’t stray far from the original sentiments that have made Pooh and the gang such beloved characters.
Over the years, Pooh has been used for everything from expressing the simplest of concepts –friendship, happiness — to defining the philosophy of Taoism. Here, Kriegman, with the help of educational consultants including Harvard Project Zero, gears the content toward the pre-literacy stage. The exploration of words and ideas through rhyme is leavened by good old-fashioned storytelling.
For instance, in one of the two-part segments, Pooh comes to believe he can make wishes come true. But when his “magical powers” fail him, he uses kind thoughts and deeds to brighten the spirits of his disappointed friends.
Although the show is an original, the material is hardly new to any of the voice actors, who have each provided sounds for other Pooh projects. Jim Cummings, who inherited the Pooh legacy from Sterling Holloway, the original voice of Pooh, has since made the character and that of Tigger his own. John Fielder (“The Bob Newhart Show”) continues as the only actor ever to bring Piglet’s voice to life. While the toddlers may not take notice, there’s great comfort in the fact that these distinctive talents have kept the integrity of these characters intact for nearly 34 years.
Technically, the show is a marvel. Each character requires three puppeteers working in total synchronicity. Their efforts, which include controlling eyes and eyebrows and wiggling ears, among other things, add life to the characters. The computer-generated background is rich and detailed, and Kriegman and the puppeteers do a great job of creating the illusion of interaction. Kudos would not be complete without a nod to the original music, including the folksy “Everyone Knows He’s Winnie the Pooh” by Brian Woodbury.