25 March 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: THIS PLACE COULD USE SOME BOUNCE, IN EXTRA-LARGE AMOUNTS

You'd be forgiven for assuming that Winnie the Pooh: Springtime with Roo is materially about the kangaroo child of the title, the youngest and most innocent member of the Winnie the Pooh universe. It is not. Instead, it's a straight-up A Christmas Carol riff set at Easter, with the role of Ebenezeer Scrooge being filled by Rabbit (Ken Sansom), who's not even important enough to rate a space on the American DVD box, probably because Disney had the good sense to recognise that the irritable, bossy self-appointed grown-up among the animals of the Hundred Acre Wood isn't by any stretch of the imagination the most beloved by the franchise's young target audience. It is a damnable pity that this insight didn't come at the scripting stage, but we can't have everything in life.

Not that Springtime with Roo doesn't try to trick us: it opens with the warm, comforting voice of the Narrator (David Ogden Stiers, making a far better stand-in for Sebastian Cabot than John Hurt or David Warner) reintroducing us to Christopher Robin's bedroom - Christopher Robin who, incidentally, does not put in any appearance in the film - when the rattling copy of the Winnie the Pooh storybook distracts him. Out pops none other than little Roo (Jimmy Bennett), all ready to hear a new adventure of Pooh (Jim Cummings), or Tigger (the same), or whomever; the Narrator nicely assures him that this will be an even more special story, because it will be mostly about Roo himself. This is very similar to the gambit that kicked off The Tigger Movie, which was, in fact, about Tigger, making the deception complete.

Forgive me if I don't want to spend too much time on the plot. Firstly, "A Christmas Carol at Easter" tells pretty much any speaker of English what happens, and the only fill-in we need is that it is Roo's second Easter in the Hundred Acre Woods, and based on his experiences last year, he can't wait; thus his hopes are particularly dashed when Rabbit announces his refusal to be the Easter Bunny this year (and, as far as we can tell, like, the Easter Bunny; I cannot otherwise explain the boxes full of hundreds of eggs). Secondly, Springtime with Roo is a contemptible, low thing, refusing to offer nearly enough context to work as anything else than another damn Pooh story for people who already have Disney's Poohniverse committed to memory, while also shitting on that Poohniverse in so many ways that I can't imagine the diehard fans of any earlier Pooh film not feeling thoroughly discombobulated. Even by the overtly toddler-scraping standards to which Disney brought Winnie the Pooh before John Lasseter forced a course-correction with 2011's Winnie the Pooh, this film very aggressively and obnoxiously telegraphs its intention to only impress and entertain very small children. Indiscriminate ones.

The film's biggest problem at the level of writing (and its biggest biggest problems are largely at the animation level, but we'll get there) is that it turns the Narrator into a very real, active character: he's been able to interact with the characters going all the way back to the 1966 Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Disney's very first Pooh cartoon, but this is something wildly different. No long just an avuncular, omniscient figure, he's become omnipotent as well, making decisions to alter the course of the story he's telling - he's the Ghost of Easters Present and Yet to Come, while Tigger is Jacob Marley and Easter Past - and while part of me salutes the film's decision to play with the longstanding franchise trope that the characters are aware that they're illustrations on a page, surely there was a way of doing so that didn't require being quite so violent in ripping apart the conceptual basis of the world. Having Tigger pull Rabbit backwards several chapters to mimic a flashback is clever. Having the narrator turn into a moral arbiter calls the causal nature of the Hundred Acre Wood into question in a way that should not have been done, I rather think.

As a story, the film suffers exactly as much as you expect it to from being another goddamn Christmas Carol; which is to say, the structure is pretty durable and malleable, and while Rabbit's conversion is predicated on an unpersuasive contrivance (everybody is so offended by his hatred of Easter that they move out of the Hundred Acre Wood altogether! Which is an awfully extreme response for a teddy bear whose long-term memory doesn't seem to include any non-edible points of reference), it gets the job done, mechanically. Sadly, things don't wrap up with Roo cheerily proclaiming "God bless us, every one!", but that pretty much makes sense: you wouldn't want to get mucking about with religion in a story about Easter.*

It suffers rather more from the confusion about its protagonist: structurally, it has to be Rabbit, but Roo is given privilege of place, and anyway, who the hell wants to watch an hour-long story about Rabbit? Is he anybody's favorite Pooh character? Please, pipe up in the comments if he is yours, because I am desperately anxious to know why. Anyway, the point remains that Springtime with Roo has no real structural integrity to speak of, and as we have previously noted, the childlike simplicity of the Pooh series is not well-suited to consistent long-form narrative arcs, particularly not those which, like this one are already sort of defective.

Frankly, nothing that happens is very interesting, nor are any of the characters likable or dynamic in and of themselves: it is very much assumed that you already know and love them all, and are anxious for any little bit of time with them, even when some of them, mostly Pooh and Piglet (John Fiedler), are so barely present that if you didn't know from other movies and shorts and TV shows that they were important, you'd probably wonder why there was any bother putting them in. Roo alone is given any depth and attention unusual from his other appearances, and it's awfully hard to argue with a straight face that he's given any real personality: just the squeaky, boundless enthusiasm of a small child who loves to have fun and cannot be seriously kept disappointed by much of anything. Also, Tigger turns out to be Jewish.

Having thoroughly bored anybody in the audience older than the "music and colors! whee!" phase of their filmgoing development, Springtime with Roo doubles down by being, easily, the worst-animated 2-D Pooh project that Disney ever made. Perhaps I cannot make that claim; at this writing, I still have a couple more Pooh features waiting for me. But it's miles below the quality of the classic shorts, and not even really in line with The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a TV cartoon at a time when Disney's television animation studios gave a damn. I cannot, alas, in screen caps give a good sense of how stilted the movement is, and how little flexibility of expression the characters display. What I can do, and shall do, with great enthusiasm, is share lots of examples of these well-defined characters going back almost 40 years at this point, who had been animated by many studios with budgets at all sorts of levels under all sorts of conditions of varying prestige, going so unfathomably far off-model that even saying looks like a pirated knock-off made in an Asian sweatshop studio would be an insult to Asians, pirates, and sweatshops.

Consider a Pooh whose arms are almost twice as long as they're supposed to be-

-or who loses 15 pounds while scrunching up his face in an awful, uncharacteristic expression-

-or whose mouth and chin just get... weird, all of a sudden-

-or a Roo who is stocky and squished and very obviously pasted on top of a background like the worst rear projection ever-

-or a Tigger whose mouth is melting, or maybe he's doing an incredibly offensive parody of a child with learning disabilities-

-or Eeyore being absolutely fucking ruined by an animation crew that clearly hated him, I mean just right the fuck hated him more than anybody has ever hated any Disney character, given how unbelievably bad he looks in virtually every scene where he appears. The Eeyore fanciers in the crowd had best skip ahead.

I'm truly at a loss for how something released by the Walt Disney Company could mangle the character designs of Walt Disney Company property so much, so often. Even the hastily-assembled TV compilations stay on model better than Springtime with Roo bothers about. It's almost charmingly inept, honestly so bad that it goes around the other side, and instead of seeming like a criminally inept work of professional draftsmanship released under the most prestigious brand name for animation in the history of the world, it feels more like adorably half-baked fan art, complete with twee little snippets of songs that don't go anywhere and characters acting like the most reductive parody of their most obvious traits. Though even that's probably being unfair to fan artists, who surely have a better sense of what works about their favorite characters than this does. It's a colossal botch, something that could only have been produced in a spirit of total indifference: on its own merits as a story to throw on while the kids need to be dully entertained, it is harmless shit, as a Pooh spin-off it is a constant exercise in frustration, and as something entertaining in any meaningful way to someone even slightly grown-up... we cannot call it an abysmal failure only because it plainly wasn't even making the attempt.

9 comments:

Brian said...

I did not know this movie existed.

I cannot help but feel like my life was better 15 minutes ago than it is now.

David Greenwood said...

"FAMOUS JEWISH SPORTS LEGENDS"

1. Tigger

Shawn Blank said...

Maybe it's because I grew up with the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but Rabbit was (and is) my favorite character. I always empathized with this poor guy who just wanted to plant his carrots and do his own thing, but has to deal with these morons imposing themselves on him. (Maybe there’s a bit of Ron Swanson in him).
There was also the great episode where Rabbit adopted a baby bird, raised her, and eventually had to accept that the bird no longer needed him. (Spoiler alert, it’s pretty heartbreaking.)
Rabbit’s the smartest character (excluding Owl) and has to suffer the frustrations that come from being surrounded by these other characters. If we were stuck with Pooh and co. as long as Rabbit has been, our generosity and good humor would eventually be depleted too.

Tim said...

Brian- Antagony & Ecstasy: Making Your Life Worse by Inches Since 2005.

David- Very nice reference!

Shawn- I appreciate the counter-point very much. I actually remember the bird story on New Adventures; it's one of maybe five episodes that I can clearly recall having seen. And certainly, I can see where that show would make you inclined to like Rabbit more than my own background, almost strictly limited to Many Adventures, would. Certainly, the fact that he's basically Tigger's designated adversary in the '77 film doesn't endear him to me.

Shawn Blank said...

I think there's also something very British about Rabbit that makes him a nice foil for the brash and bombastic Tigger.

And remember that without Rabbit you don't get Pooh's behind decorated like a moose. When written well, Rabbit quest for order and quiet can be as interesting and as funny as Pooh's hunts for honey.

And if Rabbit wasn't such a big jerk to Tigger, Rabbit finally learning to bounce wouldn't be nearly as rewarding. (The scene still makes me happy when I watch it.)

Lindsey Elsey said...

I've gotta say- Rabbit has always been my favorite character. Maybe I associate closely with him, being the eldest child in most situations while I was young and thus the self-appointed "boss" of my childhood world.
Maybe it was because Rabbit seemed the most capable of gang- he always had a plan, even if they never worked out the way he wanted them to.
Maybe, like Rhett Butler, I am a sucker for lost causes- those you know can never (and often should never) win, but will keep on trying anyhow.

Matt said...

Rabbit had all the best reactions. In the New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, they went out of their way to give him unique and amazing freakouts practically twice an episode.

He was the straight man to everyone else's lunacy.

Ben Ce said...

Although I don't watch movies that often, I deeply adore your blog, Tim, because it's very informative and amusing at the same time. I also share your enthusiasm for Disney animation and greatly love your reviews on the topic.

As a long-time Pooh fan I've seen nearly everything from the „Poohniverse” and I have to agree with you on SPRINGTIME WITH ROO: in spite of having some amusing moments (the narrator wakes Rabbit up, Tigger tries to find out the word „Easter”), overall it's a mess and better left unwatched.

For me the oddest moment is when in the flashforward Rabbit goes to Piglet's house and it looks like if a mouse family inhabited it. It's just too small and not consistent with the other adaptations where it has the same size as the other houses in the forest.

And, by the way, Rabbit is my favorite character. He's quite complex (the jerk with a heart of gold) and his neurotic behaviour provides great comedic material. I loved him in the original movie, in the NEW ADVENTURES series (oh, those glorious outbreaks) and even in PIGLET'S BIG MOVIE. Sadly, he was quite downplayed in the recent movie but he was the one who made the pit scene worthy so maybe I shouldn't criticize his amount of screentime.

Compared to him, Roo is just pale of a character and sans any distinctive traits. I always found him (and poor Kanga, whom I don't want to offend that much but I have to) the most boring from the Hundred Acre Wood gang and didn't like his increasing prominence in this sequels at all. I think he was the one who ruined POOH'S HEFFALUMP MOVIE (besides the silly script which turned Pooh, Piglet and – worst of all – Tigger into grown-up jerks and put aside the fact that Roo always went to „dangerous” adventures with his friends) because he just can't bear a whole narrative built upon him. Even if said narrative is the most basic „I-have-a-new-friend-but-my-friends-thinks-that-he-is-an-enemy-and-he-gets-frightened-by-them” plot that you can imagine for a children's movie.

So these were the thoughts of an Hungarian Pooh lover who just happened to wander here. I'm looking forward to your next sequel review. :-)

Bence

Jesse said...

I swear, one of the unsung triumphs of this Direct-to-DVD retrospective is the save file names you've elected to give your chosen screencaps.

"novocainetigger" about sent me into a fit.