Last year the copyright protection on British author A.A. Milne’s most famous creations ran out, releasing — or perhaps condemning — them to the public domain. The first (and, let’s hope, worst) consequence of that development is “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey,” a rock-bottom joint that fails to meet even the most basic expectations set up by its conceptual gimmick.
Nonetheless, that gimmick, combined with some early images and clips, propelled prolific micro-budget shingle ITN Studios’ latest project to viral notoriety, resulting in its first theatrical release after a purported 700+ titles in 32 years. Fathom Events is handling U.S. distribution, with other territories concurrent or imminent (it’s already opened in Mexico), and home formats on hold until that limited run has played out. A sequel is already in the works. But while it would be nice if this film’s windfall improves the quality of its producers’ future projects, that fluke pop-culture awareness is unlikely to occur again — certainly not among viewers who’ll still be chagrined at having paid actual money to see a movie this amateurish.
The characters and gentle whimsy of Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood are so familiar to multiple generations that one might forget it all springs from just two books, “Winnie-the-Pooh” (1926) and “The House at Pooh Corner” (1928), plus some poems. Of course they (and the visual template provided by illustrator E.H. Shepard’s drawings) were greatly expanded in popularity by other media, particularly once Disney attained the rights in the early 1960s.
Through all incarnations, there’s been a relative faithfulness to the spirit if not the letter of the original stories, reflecting their problem-solving yet reassuring tenor as what preschooler Christopher Robin imagines his stuffed animals’ inner lives to be. There is an undeniable subversive appeal in the notion of that sweetly self-contained world being warped to pulpy adult genre purposes.
But the primary (though by no means only) disappointment of “Blood and Honey” is that it does almost nothing to send up or even riff on the conventions of the Pooh universe. All we get is a guy in a cartoonish Halloween “bear” mask (Craig David Dowsett) and another in a “pig” mask (Chris Cordell) —it’s hard at first to figure which is which — running around killing people. This movie could just as well be called “Michael Myers-Type Unstoppable Killing Machine And His More Texas Chainsaw-ish Pal Run Amok.” The only reason we associate it with Milne’s universe is because the film keeps verbally telling us to do so.
Indeed, a narrator starts off explaining that young Christopher Robin befriended a group of “crossbreeds, abominations” (as opposed to nursery toys) as a wee lad, keeping them tame and well-fed from the family larder. Once he packed off to college, however, they went feral, consuming poor Eeyore whole during one long cruel winter. They then swore vengeance at their abandoning patron, as well as all humankind.
This backstory is accompanied by some very simple line-drawing animation, which is underwhelming but turns out to be the best thing “Blood and Honey” has to offer. Then we’ve got grown-up, live-action Christopher Robin (Nikolai Leon) returning to the forest to introduce his old pals to his wife (Paula Coiz). The reunion does not go well.
We next meet Maria (Maria Taylor), who’s suffering PTSD from being stalked by a creepy admirer. On a therapist’s recommendation, she seeks tranquility via a country rental-property weekend with five young women friends. One doesn’t even make it as far as the cottage; others never develop identities beyond Bitchy Blonde, One With Glasses, Lesbian Couple, etc. Eventually additional characters show up just to enlarge the body count.
It’s bad enough that the film doesn’t have the smarts to actually satirize its inspirational source. But bizarrely, it doesn’t really send up slasher tropes, either, while lacking the skillset to take play them seriously. Over the course of 84 very long minutes, scenes plod along shapelessly, separated by blackouts. Much speech appears to have been improvised by actors with no knack for it, so we get umpteen variations on “Oh my god” and “Why is this happening?!”
Logic gaps are sloppy even by the very generous standards you’d apply to a film called “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” Such a thing is built (and in this case being sold) for laughs, intentional or otherwise — when all else fails, let the viewer drinking games begin. But writer-director-producer Rhys Frake-Waterfield makes it damnably hard to have much fun, no matter how low you’re willing to go.
In an era when technology has made even many shoestring features look pretty sharp, this one begs gratitude for its few elements of relative competency. Those include Andrew Scott Bell’s original score, and some of Vince Knight’s widescreen photography. If the sound mix is often poor enough to bury dialogue in music, that may be to the dialogue’s benefit. And if the images are frequently underlit, that presumably obscures gore FX and stunt work unfit for clearer display.
You can’t blame the performers for the abysmal overall result: They manifestly lack the material or guidance to do any better. Given that “Blood and Honey” is virtually guaranteed to bring in a considerable return on its tiny investment, one can only hope Frake-Waterfield and his team will utilize that good fortune to slow the hell down. As producer, he has released 14 features in the last year alone; the four he directed himself all came out in the last four months. There is a not-so-fine line between thrifty enterprise, and simply turning garbage into more garbage.
With Bambi and Peter Pan (as well as more Pooh) reportedly next on his slate, it does not seem too much to ask — if only on behalf of beloved dead authors who never asked for such treatment — that a little effort be put in. Even audiences who seek no more than a few dumb yoks deserve better than this dreary level of slop.