06 April 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: LUMPY BUMPITY BEE

Having exhausted the stable of Winnie the Pooh's colleagues and associates in the Hundred Acre Wood with The Tigger Movie, Piglet's Big Movie, and Winnie the Pooh: Springtime with Roo, which is, title be damned, about Rabbit, the Walt Disney Company was in trouble. How to create continued marketing opportunities with their Pooh franchise with no more characters left to plunder? (Though, oddly, no feature was ever made centered around the very popular Eeyore, a fact that the nihilistic donkey would no doubt find very typical). I mean, what the hell, Owl's Movie-Length Lecture would be conceptually sound, but hardly in line with what Disney was doing in the mid-'00s.*

The solution was, of course, to introduce a new character altogether, and that is how we get Pooh's Heffalump Movie from 2005, the last theatrically-released Pooh movie until John Lasseter jammed the brakes on Disney's rampaging immolation of the 80-year-old literary figure and forced the production of 2011's Winnie the Pooh, a film that looks more stately and graceful with every new Pooh sequel I muscle through. In keeping with recent series tradition, Pooh's Heffalump Movie is neither about Pooh nor a heffalump, but mostly about Roo (Nikita Hopkins, who after five years of voicing the character was just starting to wander his way into puberty, to the extreme misfortune of the performance), who is put out when the rest of the animals refuse to let him join on a heffalump-hunting expotition. Thus he sneaks out early one morning and prepares to catch a heffalump all on his own, to prove he is a grown-up; this changes after he meets Heffridge Trumpler Brompet Heffalump IV (Kyle Stanger), or "Lumpy" for short, a young purple heffalump who has an eerie aura of market-testing around him.


The two young animals play and frolic and become the best friends ever, and then it falls to Roo to explain to the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood denizens that their long-standing hatred and fear of heffalumps is based in nothing but sheer bigotry; this process is helped out considerably when Roo needs rescuing and only Lumpy's mother (Brenda goddamn Blethyn, with a half-dozen lines or fewer - presumably she had a mortgage payment due, like that afternoon, or something) is able to do it.

Setting aside the issue that the film is so disinterested in Pooh (Jim Cummings), and his iconic friends Tigger (Cummings), Piglet (John Fiedler), Eeyore (Peter Cullen), and Rabbit (Ken Sansom) that it can't even give them a convincing subplot, and instead occasionally just cuts to their spectacularly ill-informed heffalump hunt with obvious contempt for their shrill comic shenanigans - actually, let's not set that aside, if you please. Ignoring how manifestly obvious it is that Pooh's Heffalump Movie is a bid to create, in Lumpy, a new character to plaster across shirts and drinking glasses, to translate into a plush toy (full disclosure: in 2005, a friend of mine brought a stuffed Lumpy along on a road trip, and it was, in truth, effing cute), and to otherwise kick off revenue streams divorced in any tangible way from "art", let's just stick with the thing in front of us: the 68-minute theatrical release, DisneyToon Studio's last to be so promoted. Characters like Pooh, Piglet, Tigger - these are wonderful figures, beloved by generations of children and their parents, and deeply complex in very unexpected ways that all Disney's pimping hasn't been able to strip from them. Roo is a fine character, I guess. I learned recently that there are people who love the character of Rabbit very much, so that should have trained me not to ask questions like "who the heck likes Roo the most", but anyway: who the heck likes Roo the most? I'll tell you what seems like a good bet to me: little kids who identify with him and admire his... whatever personality trait Roo has. His childish desire to have fun and be treated with respect.

Pooh's Heffalump Movie, the story of Roo finding a best friend, consists in great part of nothing but watching two children playing and laughing and running around. By the way, for all that Lumpy is a hells cute character - and he is hells cute - Stanger's English accent makes him even cuter - the script gives him seemingly days and days of scenes of saying something manic and kind of incoherent, and then laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing at it. An example is this, presumably extemporaneous, poem:
"Ker-plunk" went the little green frog last night,
"Ker-plunk" went the little green frog,
"Ker-plunk" went the little green frog last night,
And his [unintelligible] went "bloop-bloop-bloop".
[laughter; endless, high-pitched, echoing laughter]
Basic childhood play behavior, then, but holy shit, but is Lumpy the worst kind of child ever, giddy and hyperactive and shrill, the sort that non-parents regard with utmost suspicion, certain that they are meant to regard this kind of thing as "charming", when really all you want is for it all to end as swiftly as possible.

Anyway, what I was driving at is that Disney had long since decided that Pooh was going to be their "toddler" franchise, as it were; Pooh's Heffalump Movie is aiming at least a couple of years older than that, but it's still squarely within the wheelhouse of what the company had in mind for the characters, which is that they were to be sold to the very, very young, getting them hooked and turning them into a revenue stream as early as possible. Which I only have a moral problem with, not an aesthetic one, when they're still able to scrape something as relatively pleasing as Piglet's Big Movie. But Pooh's Heffalump Movie really rubs your nose in it, more than any of the other Pooh features preceding it. There's not a scrap of Milne left, at this point, with Pooh being given little more than a cameo, and keeping locked offscreen with him the very beautiful evocation of innocent anti-logic and early-language skills that Milne's Hundred Acre Wood represents. The best kind of Pooh - the original books, of course, and Disney's first shorts - is deeply and inexorably about childhood, from a perspective of childhood, and clearly intended for children; but it is so impressively rich in its exploration of those limitations that I frankly enjoy all of it more as an adult than I ever did as a kid.

I do not, to a disproportionately intense degree, enjoy Pooh's Heffalump Movie as an adult. It is trivial in a way that real Pooh stories never are. Also, as a deep-seated Poohvian, it bothers me more than it ought to that there's, y'know, a physical heffalump in the Heffalump Movie; it was made, I though, pretty clear in both the books and Disney's 1968 short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day that heffalumps are Pooh's confused misunderstanding of Tigger's mispronunciation of the name of an animal he knows nothing about, and that they do not, in fact, exist within many hundreds of miles of the Hundred Acre Wood - this is, indeed, why it is quaint that Pooh fears them so. Yeah, I get that the TV series The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has "real" heffalumps, and the DisneyToon Pooh movies tend to follow that series' continuity, not the shorts'. I know this, but I do not have to care for it.

There are other things to complain about, like Carly Simon's flimsy, limp songs (including a strangely adult-perspective lullaby) - Simon was quite invested in the making of this movie, filling a similar role to Howard Ashman's with Beauty and the Beast, with all due apologies to Ashman for having said that - or the clunky story structure, with its wholly superfluous conflict for all the non-Roo characters to work through (poor Eeyore doesn't even get his plotline wrapped up until the end credits, where it's in pantomime), but there is only so much energy that any one adult human should have to devote to Pooh's Heffalump Movie, and I have clearly surpassed it.

So let's turn to the animation, for at least a minute or two. Because it's certainly not as straightforward as it feels like it should be. This was, after all, a theatrical release, and there always was a certain added level of attention paid to those. God knows its not anywhere near the quality of a real, high-quality, major animated release by a top-tier studio (for example, the actual Walt Disney Feature Animation release in the same year was- oh, it was Chicken Little, never mind anything I was saying), but there are moments that are somewhat lovely, in fact. Especially the moments where a lot of time was spent on carefully shaded lighting effects, of which there are a surprising number here.

The backgrounds are also, in general, quite beautiful, mimicking watercolors with a fair degree of success, and supplying the only note of "restful storytime" to be found anywhere in the movie. It's a largely handsome film, then, by no means the best thing you've ever seen, but at least as good looking from a design standpoint as any of the DisneyToon Pooh films.

Where it does start to fall apart is in the character animation, though sporadically. Primarily, Tigger and Rabbit are simply awful - maybe not awful in themselves, but awful because of how extraordinarily strange they look through much of the movie: Rabbit's eyes have a tendency to float around like they certainly shouldn't, and Tigger is just... so terrible, mugging so bad that he frequently only resembles himself superficially. The two of them spend such a massive amount of screentime way off-model that I sort of doubt they had a model to begin with.

The rest of the character animation is incomparably better: Roo especially, as would more or less be vital for the movie to work in any meaningful way. His interactions with Lumpy are pretty lovely, in fact, with some nice subtleties of expression on the kangaroo's face, and the physical contact between the two characters having enough realness to them that the new friendship does manage to land, from a visual standpoint if not entirely a scripted one.

I might even go so far as to say that, overall, the visuals of Pooh's Heffalump Movie are the best thing about it, which is not something I'm overly inclined to say about any Disney sequel, even the ones with lousy scripts; at leas the movie looks sweet and warm, no matter how much the story is so crudely mercenary and mechanical that you can hear the gears grinding. The fact that it looks good is at least enough to set it above Springtime with Roo; "not Disney's worst Pooh feature" is saying very little, but it's not saying absolutely nothing at all. That being said, I am extremely happy that I'm just about done with the dreary things.

2 comments:

Robert Burgless said...

I'm going to say this right here, right now: Lumpy terrified me as a child. Seriously, I have no idea why, but he's more fearful than anything else I had seen of Disney in my childhood, scarier than Zira or Frollo or whatever.

So your review really jogged my memory. I'm curious to see what you think of Kronk's New Groove, though, when you get to it; considering that you love Emperor's New Groove.

Good review, as usual.

Sssonic said...

It is deeply telling that the most memorable thing about this movie is still Disney's boneheaded choice to use "Semi-Charmed Life" (a song about Crystal Meth addiction, let us remember) as the primary Song of Choice in its advertising campaign.