During this section of the calendar, all new film releases seem to arrive with over-the-top superlative adjectives attached: "the biggest," "the wildest," "the most expensive," "the most explosive!" I don't think any have been tagged "the sweetest" or "the most sincere." Till now.
Winnie the Pooh, Walt Disney Picture's first big-screen adaptation of A.A. Milne's classic characters since Pooh's Heffalump Movie (2005), is charming, winsome, and funny. It's also a notable bit of nostalgia. While Milne's characters have left direct-to-video for the theater a few times in the last decade (2000's The Tigger Movie, 2003's The Piglet Movie, and Heffalump), this marks Disney's return to the tone, character and look of the vintage 1960s and 1970s featurettes.
This retro-approach includes the age-old Pooh staples: live-action bookends, integration of the printed page (full of words and letters) into moving story, and interaction between Pooh and the narrator (now voiced perfectly by John Cleese). The Pooh-centered story is mined from classic Milne stories including sections of 1928's The House at Pooh Corner. The animation is again the hand-drawn art style inspired by Ernest H. Shepard's book illustrations. And Burny Mattinson, a key animator on the 1974 featurette Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too!, serves as senior story artist.
These aspects all pay off. This is the gentle, simple, and whimsical Pooh you remember. There's no big plot, no big crisis. Just Pooh high jinks and adventure. In fact, the storyline is exceptionally light: It's a typical day in the Hundred Acre Wood. When Eeyore's tail goes missing, the gang has a contest to find a new one until a misunderstanding leads to a hunt for an imaginary beast, the Backson.
The film's simplicity is also reflected in its length; the 68-minute runtime includes a short called The Ballad of Nessie, a cute tale with a good moral, though it's delivered heavy-handedly. While theater prices make a movie this short seem a better fit for NetFlix, the brevity and its gentle, quiet nature make it perfect for young children, especially for their first trip to the theater. It also means that parents who grew up on the old Pooh toons can get a stellar and engaging nostalgia hit without it getting stale.
The characters are quite true to the Milne stories and Disney's old featurettes. For me, the silly old bear and gloomy Eeyore steal the show; the voicing is spot-on and they're given classic Pooh and Eeyore things to do and say. (Pooh: "I'm glad I noticed or else I wouldn't have seen it."). In fact, the dialogue between the characters is the film's strength. When a writing team knows their character ensemble well, a fine group dynamic can spark, and that's what happens here. There are at least three fantastically crafted bits of Abbot-and-Costello-type wordplay comedy.
There are light moral lessons. Ideas of friendship and sticking together undergird the story; at one point, Pooh chooses to say no to honey (a huge sacrifice obviously) to help a friend.