15 September 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: I'M EMPTY AND COLD, AND MY HEART'S ABOUT TO BREAK

We are gathered here in consideration of the notorious matter of the Disney animated sequel; and yet it is difficult to say exact what the nature of Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin is, as far as sequeldom goes. For our purposes, it makes the most sense to consider it the continuation of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, released in feature form in the spring of 1977, 20 years exactly before our present subject; but in the interim, there was also a television series produced, The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and there are good reasons also for considering the 1997 picture a continuation of that.

On the one hand, it shares two key lines of dialogue from the final scene of the ’77 film, and its narrative takes up at precisely that point, if not even a hair earlier. But it does not share that film’s key point of mise en scène, the notion that the film’s world is bound entirely within the pages of a book, and the characters, living in the illustrations, are able to interact with the blocks of text. The narrative, for reasons I’ll get into, is considerably more in line with the stories told in the television show, but while it is apparently the case that the series takes place in an American town, Pooh’s Grand Adventure takes place in Great Britain on the logic that Christopher Robin speaks with an English accent, of sorts, though he was voiced by a native of California. And as my memory serves, New Adventures involves at least a slightly older school-aged Christopher, while the plot of the '97 film involves him going to school for the very first time.

The possibility exists, and I very nearly favor it, that Pooh’s Grand Adventure is the bridging narrative between Many Adventures and New Adventures, though it has never sat right with me that those two entities are meant to co-exist in a single chronology, and thus a bridge between them cannot exist. Thus I am compelled to assume that there is no literal, definitive link connecting any of these, and that Disney’s Pooh universe - which I would very much like to call the “Poohniverse”, but a well-developed sense of shame forbids me - consists not of a tightly-bound continuity, but of several discontinuous “Moments of Pooh”, which are united by affinities more than by specifics, much as there are multiple versions of the major comic book superheroes who are all broadly the same as one another, though in the small points of detail they are found to be in different universes, or planets, or whatever the hell it is they do to create 18 different X-Men titles. Fucking comic writers.

Thus we land in what I will think of, though not refer to, as Hundred Acre Wood-616. Here, young boychild Christopher Robin (Brady Bluhm) is walking with his best friend of all, the rather dim but earnest and humane teddy bear Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), trying to find the courage to tell his little companion that the next day, the beginning of fall, will be his first day at school and thus the first day since memory began that the two of them will not be able to play; but in his guileless way, Pooh manages to say all of the wrong things to discourage the boy from admitting what's on his mind, and by the time the sun sets, nothing has been cleared up.

The next day, when Pooh finds a mysterious jar of honey outside his front door with a note attached; the illiterate bear attempts to find Christopher Robin and have him decode it, but Christopher Robin is nowhere to be found. Eventually, Pooh stumbles on the idea of taking the note - at this point drenched in honey - to the self-described wisest animal in the forest, Owl (Andre Stojka), who completely mangles it by suggesting that Christopher Robin needs help, being taken to a faraway place called Skull. Horror-stricken, the naïve Pooh, smug Rabbit (Ken Sansom), cowardly Piglet (John Fiedler), depressive Eeyore (Peter Cullen), and ebullient Tigger (Paul Winchell, who shortly thereafter retired from the character he created a quarter of a century prior), head off to a journey, aided by Owl's spectacularly ill-informed map, that takes them through a region of nightmarish places and extreme dangers.


In the broadest possible sense, this is akin to the New Adventures series, which did sometimes go further afield than the original feature in positing adventures beyond the Hundred Acre Wood. But even at its most intense, the show came nowhere remotely near this iteration of Pooh's world in exploring craggy wastelands and monster-choked vistas (the characters are chased throughout by an unseen roaring creature they call a Skullasaurus). Hell, even the new narrator is played by David Warner, an excellent and undervalued character actor who nevertheless has a something of a threatening, mean voice.

The injection of out-of-nowhere darkness is typically cited as the reason Pooh's Grand Adventure doesn't work as well as Disney's earlier Pooh projects, and while it would be nice to go out on a limb and defend the work as misunderstood, I'm going to side with convention on this one. There's really very little of the Pooh ethos to be found here in any measure, especially if one agrees as I do that the defining trait of Pooh's truly grand adventures is their resolute domesticity. Recall that these films were ultimately based on children's stories, in which the incidents that happened to the various animals of the Hundred Acre Wood were metaphoric extensions of a five-year-old boy's playtime with his stuffed toys; 100 acres is an awful lot of space for a small boy, but the feeling one gets when reading or watching the earlier film is of a well-traveled neighborhood of familiar places. And the crises faced by Pooh and company are of consistently small, intimate sorts: getting stuck in a doorway, finding a meal for a hungry Tigger, giving a present to an unhappy friend.

In what could, feasibly, be described as a "twist" ending, Pooh's Grand Adventure ends with the reveal that all of the terrifying places visited by the animals are simply the familiar corners of the Hundred Acre Wood distorted by imagination into scenes of horror; and in this we can take the implicit theme of the film being that being alone makes even the familiar seem terrifying and new (the explicit theme is that true friends never abandon us, even when they have to leave for a time). And I suppose, if one is going to force Winnie the Pooh into an Expressionist hellscape, it's good to have an intellectual out for doing so. But doing this violates the essential nature of what makes Pooh Pooh, to me, and the very heart and soul of what he represents both in the stories and movies and to culture as a whole (the inviolable innocence of childhood imagination) lies in such stark opposition to the "darker and edgier" shtick that is apparently what's meant to make the grand adventure so grand. Wrenching Pooh out of the patterns of behavior and warm places that he thrives in does not "expand the scope" of the Poohniverse* and it does not increase my appreciation of Pooh's innocent nature by contrasting him with something unexpected and foreign. It feels, rather, like a violation of the contract that the storytellers have made both with the character and the viewer.

Setting aside, with great reluctance, the conceptual unrighteousness of Pooh's Grand Adventure, let us turn to the simpler matters at hand: how well is it executed, regardless of the end goal of the execution? To which I reply, "adequately"; it was produced in its entirety at the Walt Disney Television Animation studio in Tokyo, the same as New Adventures, AKA "the lesser of the two primary WDTA studios". Or, at any rate, the less expressive, though at least the Pooh universe gives the animators an out, given the extreme simplicity of the characters even in their most beautifully expressive version, in the two '60s shorts, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.

Visually, the movie looks awfully like the show with lusher backgrounds: the small changes in the characters' designs are approximately the same as they were there, mostly in the service of making the animation faster (no nearly-invisible shading on Tigger's stripes or small bits of errant fur on Pooh here), and for the most part they are largely not worth mentioning, though I am alarmed by how goddamn big Piglet's ears seem to have gotten.

The quality of the animation is resolutely TV-sized, though there are a few grace notes: the mist that surrounds the ultimate destination of Skull is far and away the most impressive part of the whole movie, and the only time that anything even resembling lighting effects are attempted. If it is surprisingly cheap in appearance even for a DTV Disney sequel, we must recall the massive difference in audience: Aladdin and the King of Thieves was relatively prestigious, where Pooh's Grand Adventure is aimed strictly at children, for the decision that Disney's Pooh franchise should be entirely aimed at increasingly younger audience had already been made at this point. This is maybe the most galling part of it all: the sense of nobody really caring about the project, not minding if it misses the point of Pooh or not. Just cranking out product was quite enough, thanks.

That sense of corporatised blandness is everywhere: very much in the watery music, five original songs by Michael Abbott and Sarah Weeks that mostly touch in some way on friendship: the duet "Forever and Ever", a frivolous sing-songy bit of exposition; Pooh's lament, "Wherever You Are", a sad nighttime ballad to the moon and stars that is far and away the only worthwhile song in the lot; and "Everything Is Right", an instantly forgettable number about being back together. The other two - a singularly insipid piece of satire for Rabbit called "If It Says So", and Owl's fatuous "Adventure Is a Wonderful Thing" - are between them notable for how badly Stojka drops Owl's accent during the harder notes.

And that, in turn, is a convenient segue to the voice acting: shockingly bad in some cases, given how long several of the actors had been playing those characters. Winchell's voice had been getting weaker for some time prior - even during the run of the TV show, he'd been obliged to hand off Tigger duties to Cummings at a certain point, to my own eternal dismay - and while I am touched that he wanted to be there for the character as long as possible, it pains me to say the strain on his throat is unpleasantly obvious. Cummings's Pooh, arguably the actor's signature character, comes off as merely dumb instead of thoughtfully slow-witted, though how much of this has to do with a script that doesn't respect Pooh nearly as much as it should, I cannot say. Cullen's Eeyore sounds, like it always did to my ears, much too much like Cullen; the mopey donkey is much less convincing as a character when he reminds you just slightly too much of Optimus Prime.

John Fiedler, to his credit, is great. Like Winchell, he was getting way up in years, but there's no noticing it: the tremulousness mixed with a kind of sweet hope of his earliest time with the character is rock solid. It's the one and only place where Pooh's Grand Adventure captures the spirit of the great Pooh of yore.

There are, undoubtedly, more ill-advised Disney sequels, even possibly ones that miss the point by a broader margin; but for me, this one is just depressing, in a singular and complete way. Part of it, I am sure, is my allegiance to Pooh et alia from their literary beginnings on to the first Disney iteration, the considerably snarkier Russian shorts that shortly followed Disney's, the peculiar live-action '80s series, and even New Adventures itself; I do not take transgressions against the bear of little brain lightly. And a transgression this very much is, and no mistake. Thankfully, 14 years later, saner heads prevailed and Pooh got a more official sequel that came much, much closer to the right spirit; we can debate that film all we like, but by any measure it's not half the joyless, character-betraying slog of this distasteful misfire.

6 comments:

Colin said...

That third paragraph makes it sound like we need some sort of Crisis on Infinite Hundred Acre Woods.

M.C. said...

"Poohniverse". I will hate and love you forever for that.

Thrash Til' Death said...

Pooh was an integral part of my childhood, possibly more so than any other fictional character at that age, both in the TV show and A.A. Milne's stories. With that said, I saw this movie when it came out and I remember LOVING it. Yeah, I was young, and I loved everything I was given, obviously, and I haven't seen it since, but there are a handful of moments and images that still occur to me as being quite gratifying and smart. Most notably, thre's the moment where Pooh's image is refracted and distorted by a monolithic wall of crystal, convincing all of his friends that they're seeing the mythical monster they've been warned about for the whole film.

I guess where I differ from you, Tim, is that I don't (or at least didn't - I'll have to revisit it sometime) see this movie's darkness as being a breach of the benign domesticity of A.A. Milne's universe. It could have been, certainly, but it generally keeps things in the realm of atmosphere and passive, intimated threat rather than actual, immediate, tangible peril. That, and I always felt that the "twist" was an immensely well-deserved one. Christopher Robin being found and revealling that he never really was any danger is such a relief after the emotionally harrowing images that preceded it, I'd almost liken it to the enormous catharsis of the Nina Simone musical number at the end of "Inland Empire." [/mind-blowingly disingenuous comparison]

Trish said...

You hit the nail on the head in the sixth and seventh paragraphs as to why I hated this movie as a child and found it wicked uncomfortable to watch even as an adult. Having recently revisited this for my own (admittedly much more truncated) Disney sequel marathon, I have to say that "Pooh's Grand Adventure" might just be the most deeply upsetting and inappropriate thing Disney has ever done with Winnie the Pooh and the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood since "Too Smart For Strangers".

Daniel Silberberg said...

Oh man, I loved this one as a kid. I literally had the movie memorized. The thing is, the physical danger in PGA isn't that much more severe than in the Milne stories or prior Disney entries. Pooh falls out of trees comparable in height to the chasm threatening Tigger, Piglet got flooded out of his house, Rabbit was lost in the woods. It was the reassuring presence of Christopher Robin that rendered such obstacles quaint and unthreatening. And as the movie highlights, it's his absence that makes them monumental and scary.

I kind of liked the darker tone and sense of stakes. It captured something from the books that I'd found lacking in the movies. Remember when Owl's house gets blown over? In the book, that became Piglet's crowning moment of awesome. He has to climb a rope through the fallen house--terrified the whole time--to escape out the window and get help, making him feel mighty heroic. But in The Blustery Day, there was no such test of mettle. In this movie, you got to see all the characters get scared, and overcome their fears. It shakes up the formula to some extent, but then, Christopher Robin going to school is shaking up the formula.

Anyway, I agree the execution is adequate, the mythos is inconsistant, and some scenes play pretty poorly, I'm just trying to elucidate why, as a nine-year-old, I still found it captivating. That said, I haven't watched it for, like, 13 years, so perhaps nostalgia has muddled my perception as well. At the time, my main qualm was "Where the hell are Kanga and Roo?"

Tim said...

The absence of Kanga and Roo bothered me a whole lot too, and I'm shocked that I forgot to mention it.

Otherwise, I appreciate Thrash Til' Death and Daniel chiming in in on behalf of the picture. I fear that I am impossible to convince on this point, but I felt like there'd be good ways to defend it if people had a mind to, and I was hoping that I'd see some things that would reframe it in another way than my reflexive dislike of it.