25 October 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: HOW TO BE A TIGGER IS UP TO YOU

According to the original plan, at this point in our study of the dubious and uncertain matter of the Disney animated sequel, we were to have arrived at Hercules: Zero to Hero, a direct-to-video compilation of episodes of the television series spun off of the 1997 feature Hercules. Sadly, all of my powers, including those involving greyer legality than Disney would like me to think about, have been unequal to task of finding a watchable copy, and since the notional film is, after all, just a stitched-together collection of TV episodes - a monstrous hybrid form of sequel that we shall encounter again in the future - it does not trouble me more than slightly that I must report this failure to you.

Instead, let's skip ahead to the year 2000 and The Tigger Movie, the first theatrically-released film made by Walt Disney Television since 1995's A Goofy Movie, and the first theatrical Disney sequels since 1990's The Rescuers Down Under. With the same caveat that had to be applied to the direct-to-video Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin, which is that any given Pooh movie may or may not be accurately described as a "sequel" to the anthology film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, given that Disney's treatment of the world of A.A. Milne's beloved bear of little brain is less as a narrative franchise than as a brand name, and any given Pooh feature cannot be sworn to occupy the same continuity as any other.

That said, The Tigger Movie is certainly a good deal closer to Many Adventures than Pooh's Grand Adventure was, if only on the logic that it shares the key aesthetic feature of the original Disney Pooh shorts: the whole story is depicted as taking place on the pages of a book found in the room of normal little boy Christopher Robin, with characters in the movie moving about in between lines of text. Sadly, though, this idea is left under-utilised by The Tigger Movie, wherein the only moment that finds a character either playing with text like a physical object, or interacting directly with the warm-voiced Narrator (John Hurt) is at the very start, when an annoyed Tigger (Jim Cummings) asks why it is that the stories are always about Pooh and never about himself.

Well this time, the story shall be about Tigger, and before going any farther into it, I shall have to lay all my cards on the table and confess to the bias that shall inform this entire review: Tigger is not just a character in a Disney movie that I happen to like; in his earliest incarnations, he is among my favorite Disney characters, a perfect combination of animation (supervised by the great Milt Kahl) and voice acting (by the legendary Paul Winchell), whose first appearance in the 1968 short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day is one of the great high-water marks of Disney character creation between the start of World War II and the peak of the studio's 1990s renaissance. We take Tigger seriously around these parts, that is to say; we do not look kindly on stories that misuse him. And that, I fear, is true of most of the Pooh projects made after the '70s, and especially those that followed Winchell's semi-retirement from the role; Cummings, who does an exemplary (though not flawless) job of recreating Sterling Holloway's Pooh, has never proven able to exactly re-create Winchell's Tigger, coming only close enough to call even more attention to how much he misses the mark.

The Tigger Movie, at one point in its development, was to have been Winchell's farewell to the character, but an increasingly weak voice made that impossible, and so this movie that wants to be, nominally, the ultimate Tigger experience, must make do with Cummings's adequate at best take on the title character. Strike one.

The film begins with a not-unfamiliar situation: the ebullient Tigger is in the mood to go out bouncing on this glorious autumn day, but all of his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are too busy getting ready for winter - Pooh is putting up enough honey to last through the snow (or, at least, through the afternoon), Piglet (John Fiedler) is gathering a season's worth of firewood, Kanga (Kath Soucie) is cleaning, Eeyore (Peter Cullen) is winterproofing his twig home, Rabbit (Ken Sansom) is being an officious dick, it being the peculiarly pervasive flaw of pretty much all the latter-day Pooh films and series that they can't keep from transforming Rabbit from a bossy sort into an outright totalitarian asshole.

Being unable to find anyone to bounce with - and being too sullen about it to notice that little Roo (Nikita Hopkins) is extremely interested in learning the esoteric and ancient ways of Tiggering - Tigger mopes about, inadvertently ruining Eeyore's home by dropping a boulder on it, removing that boulder but annoying Rabbit in the process, and being generally depressed until a chance remark by Roo makes him wonder if there might not be other Tiggers out in the world; a thought that fills him with delight, even though it is an important article of faith that the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is that he is the only one. When this observation is thrown back at him, he deflects it in a manner not remotely satisfying.

And so he sends a letter out into the world, hoping to find other Tiggers; this makes Roo feel sad for him. So he, and the rest of the animals, compose a letter to their lonely friend, ostensibly from the wide Tigger family, professing their love for him; when Tigger receives it, he instantly becomes convinced that he is about to be inundated with Tiggers, throwing himself to the task of planning a party. Continuing the charade, Roo and the others pose as Tiggers and come to the party, humiliating their host and causing him to storm out into the snow. Alarmed, they all go out into the night to find him, and one avalanche later, Tigger discovers that he doesn't need to find dozens of other animals just like himself to have a family; he has always had a family right here.

Isn't that a nice, sweet, warm, fuzzy message? Moreover, a message applied with the force of a side of beef being swung into your face? Still moreover, a message that might indeed fit well into the Pooh universe generally, particularly in the more kiddy-pitched side of the Pooh universe that predominated at the time, but so very much not a message that needs as its carrier the buoyant, careless Tigger? This last point, of course, is the one that's a bit foggier and harder to claim as fact. But it would nevertheless by my rather urgently held conviction that, with all of the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood functioning largely as archetypes, and with Tigger in particular representing enthusiasm, braggadocio, a devil-may-care intensity that is at times destructive in its refusal to contemplate consequences, it simply doesn't make sense to the character to force him through such a sticky-sweet round of pre-K soul-searching. Tigger is not, by his nature, a person given to troubled introspection and making a story called The Tigger Movie all about that kind of emotional sensitivity does not deepen his character, it fundamentally alters and even wrecks it. While I acknowledge that Jun Falkenstein's script, from Eddie Guzelian's story, is on its own terms a gentle, effective exploration of its themes - and far more authentically Poohvian than the dark and cruelty-tinged Pooh's Grand Adventure - this is not a project seeking to work on its own terms. It is a project called The Tigger Movie; a project that openly announces that it is trading on our pre-established feelings about a certain character. Changing that character's nature is disingenuous at best, no matter how superficially nice the movie that results.

But enough of that, anyway. The Tigger Movie is a nice, blank children's movie; it is a dismaying betrayal of Tigger himself. Each viewer will decide for themselves how much that matters. As they will decide for themselves what to make of the film's decided lack of interest in any of the other characters, particularly Pooh himself, who in an uncharacteristically misdirected performance by Cummings speaks throughout with a tone of pronounced, heaving resignation, as though he has forgotten what hope feels like.

As a work of animation, it's about what it needs to be: like Pooh's Grand Adventure, it was made largely at Disney's Japanese animation studio, which had honed its approach to the characters over the course of the New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh TV series. Certainly the theatrical film is at a better level of craftsmanship than its DTV predecessor: the drafting is much close to the scratchy pencil style of the original Many Adventures shorts, the colors richer, the lighting a bit more complex.

What it is surely not is a work of character animation up to the standard of the original, nor would a sane person expect it to be. But it still somehow feels chintzier than I would have personally ever expected: the gestures too broad and thoughtless, without any of the tiny niceties of emotion that even cheap television animation out to be capable of. It's telling that one of the only good moments of facial acting in the film comes in a sequence apparently copied frame-by-frame from a similar moment in Blustery Day-

-while elsewhere in the film, characters do an enormous amount of acting with their eyebrows (a most peculiar tendency, the more one thinks about it: why eyebrows, and why are they so uniformly bad?), stretching and deforming so much that they bear only a marginal similarity to the character models upon which they are presumably based.

Meanwhile, Rabbit, who consistently seems to be the hardest character to get right, for some inexplicable reason - he was even the obvious weak link in the generally strong 2011 Winnie the Pooh - frequently looks just fucking awful.

There are some fun moments of animation and design, of course, almost all of the best coming during a single musical number in which Tigger fantasises about the many different Tiggers out in the world, and we see them: Tigger dinosaurs, Tigger Marilyn Monroes, Tigger sailors, Tigger gladiators. It's a fun experiment in seeing how far the already-stretchy character can be pushed without becoming unrecognisable, though limited in ambition.

This, and the rest of the songs in the movie, come courtesy of brothers Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, the musical voices of Disney for many years, who hadn't written a single piece for any Disney film since Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971 (though they continued contributing songs to Disney theme park attractions into the 1980s). What could possibly have compelled them to return after such a long span, I cannot begin to imagine; and why Disney would have pursued them with what I imagine was a great deal of pleading is not necessarily clear either, unless it is that The Tigger Movie, being a project so stalled out in self-satisfied nostalgia, seemed to need some vintage Disney magic of the Sherman Brothers variety. Whatever the case, their new set of songs is, by and large, not terrifically interesting, though of course the songs in Many Adventures were not terrifically interesting themselves. And only one, "Someone Like Me", descends to the level of being actively bad, largely because giving Tigger a light jazz ballad about feeling socially isolated is such a transparently wrongheaded decision that I cannot believe it wasn't squashed early in the development stages. On the contrary, though: it was, by all accounts, Michael Eisner's enthusiasm for the film's soundtrack that bumped The Tigger Movie from a video premiere to a theatrical release. And perhaps, if Eisner thought that the anonymous, vague ditties making up this soundtrack, musically simple and lyrically inane ("How to Be a Tigger", in which the animals all dress up as Tiggers, is particularly wan in this regard), it is just as well that the main Disney animated canon had largely given up trying to be musicals by this point.

I would prefer not to end on too crotchety a note in regard to a film that is, ultimately, not harmless at all; and as far as children's cinematic entertainment goes, is even a definitely improvement over most of the noisy dreck that was starting to dominate the landscape around that time, and would become quite inescapable over the following decade. Whatever part of its soul the film had to give up in order to become a blandly acceptable morality play for the young and easily-amused, at least it isn't cynical! That would truly be an ugly direction for the Pooh franchise to take itself.

But still, my allegiance to the character does not make The Tigger Movie suddenly okay because there were a hundred ways it could have been worse. There are also a hundred ways it could have been better, and most of those would involve treating the characters with greater integrity on the level of story, and with more patient craftsmanship on the level of animation. Just because the film's target audience is made up of tiny children, does not grant the filmmakers license to disregard the integrity of characters who had existed and been triumphs of personality for three and four decades before those tiny children were even born.

10 comments:

Sssonic said...

"The Tigger Movie" is, to me, kind of proof positive that traditional long-form narrative structure, especially of the "normal" Disney mold, does not fit the "Pooh" series at all. Even before you get to tinkering with the tenets of Tigger's character, after all, you have to struggle with the fact that "Pooh" stories are, by their very nature, short simple things with only the barest hint of narrative intent or moral center to them; trying to make a full-fledged narrative out of those same tools is almost destined to end in failure.

For whatever it's worth, I'd argue "The Tigger Movie" is the least failed of the depressingly many failed attempts Disney has made to tackle this very inherently-flawed idea (though its successor in Disney's bizarre psuedo-trilogy of theatrical early-aughts "Pooh" films, "Piglet's Big Movie", wisely tackled its own story more episodically, and even borrowed unused material from Milne's books). It's still pretty bad to be sure, but there's enough in there that is, if not good per se, then at least SOMEWHAT interesting about it; heck, even the core kernel of its story, Tigger wanting to figure out if he really IS the only one, could potentially be made to work if one explores it more from the perspective of the Excited Adventurer rather than the Mopey Introvert. And I confess to having a slightly greater affection for Cummings' Tigger voice than you, even as I also agree Winchell was kind of irreplaceable in the role (even by himself at an older age) and that Cummings' Pooh is significantly better, so that's a factor too.

And hey, congratulations on dodging a bullet; I saw "Zero to Hero" but once as a young'un, and it is the only time I will ever need to.

polynomialpal said...

I'm sure that "Zero to Hero" is just one of those lost episode 'creepypastas' anyhow.

franklinshepard said...

After reading this review, I kind of feel bad for liking this movie now.

I can't really defend it, but I picked it up with very low expectations, and I was charmed. I did just re-watch it when it came out on blu-ray, and in the light of the new Pooh film, I could see that it wasn't very good, but I still find it kind of low-key and charming. I guess the experimentation with Tigger's character just doesn't bother me that much.

David Greenwood said...

@franklinshepard Don't feel bad for disagreeing with a film critic! We all like stuff for different reasons. One look at my Flickchart will give most cinephiles fits.

@Tim Oh god, eyebrows. My peeve with animated films for years has been what I call "Dreamworks Eyebrow", though I'm pretty sure Disney started it around the time of Hercules. It's the raised eyebrow and coy smile that says "hey kids, isn't this whole thing so fucking snarky and ironic?". It still hurts me that the posters and box art for Tangled (<3) are infected with it.

Daniel Silberberg said...

"it being the peculiarly pervasive flaw of pretty much all the latter-day Pooh films and series that they can't keep from transforming Rabbit from a bossy sort into an outright totalitarian asshole."

Thank you.

"a project that openly announces that it is trading on our pre-established feelings about a certain character. Changing that character's nature is disingenuous at best, no matter how superficially nice the movie that results."

Thank you!

"Just because the film's target audience is made up of tiny children, does not grant the filmmakers license to disregard the integrity of characters who had existed and been triumphs of personality for three and four decades before those tiny children were even born."

PREACH IT!

Tim said...

Sssonic- that's a fantastic idea about Pooh being inherently incompatible with long-form narrative. Part of me wants to say that the 2011 Winnie the Pooh is counter-evidence, but that's such a broken-up, conflict-free thing that I'm not sure that it counts, to say nothing of the truth that it's hardly a universally-regarded success. Great notion, and one I shall be taking up - with credit - in future Pooh spin-off reviews.

Polynomialpal- Works for me

Franklin- What David said. For what it's worth, I kind of feel bad for bagging on it so much.

David- I cannot find it now, but I once stumbled across a blog post that observed such eyebrows in the ad campaign for every DreamWorks CGI feature. Impossible not to see it now.

Daniel- Aw, shucks. Thanks.

Trish said...

Funny you mention "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh". I recall an episode where they did essentially this exact plot (nobody has ever seen the rest of one character's family, other characters write a note as that character's family promising a visit and disguise themselves as the family, shockingly this plan fails to end happily) with Owl instead of Tigger. It didn't quite work well in twenty minutes (and Pooh et al just end up looking like emotionally manipulative jerks), so it isn't surprising that it worked even worse in a longer story.

I wonder if this film came to be because somebody at Disney finally pointed out something about Tigger's theme song that always freaked me out as a weird, way-too-perceptive little kid: in the last line, he proudly proclaims to be all but extinct. And so they tried to come up with a story that'd reassure us weird kids, even though there really isn't any way to resolve it without messing with the status quo. So Tigger remains the last of his kind in the end. Wee.

Tim said...

Oh my God, I absolutely remember that episode. I remember disliking it, but I also remember disliking most episodes of that show at least a little.

As for Tigger's status as a threatened species: I also took it to be a weirdly nihilistic brag, but certainly something that was so obviously important to him that changing it around is even weirder than the fact of the claim was to start with.

Sssonic said...

@ Tim: For the record, I'm a big fan of the 2011 "Pooh", and my thinking is much the same as yours: it's got a more unified structure than "The Many Adventures..." but still ultimately accords itself more to the logic of short, episodic stories than a particularly-unified longform narrative, at least to my mind.

And goodness, I'm certainly humbled to hear you like my theory enough to use it in future reviews. Thank you kindly for the praise, and I only hope it serves you well. ^_^

Kotoro said...

I would have liked to have actually had a new tiger character introduced instead of the stupid happy already have a family crap.