Since Disney's first animated "Pooh" short subjects back in the mid 1960s, the studio has been having a field day with Milne's classic children's stories. This 1997 release, "Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin," was Disney's first full-length (76 minutes) rendering of a Pooh tale in over twenty years. If it doesn't quite match the quality of their first entries in the series, chalk it up to not having all of the original character voices on hand. Still, the new movie and the new voices put in a noble effort, and the result should please most younger kids and not a few adults.
The Scots writer A.A. Milne (1882-1956) said it was his wife, Dorothy, and his son, Christopher Robin, who inspired him to write his four Pooh books. According to his biography, "The worldwide sales of the four books between 1924 and 1956 totalled about seven million. Amusingly, once sales passed a million, the publishers stopped counting!" However, and oddly enough, "He rarely read the stories to his son Christopher, preferring to amuse him with the works of P.G. Wodehouse, one of Milne's favorite authors." His son later wrote, "My father did not write the books for children. He didn't write for any specific market; he knew nothing about marketing. He knew about me, he knew about himself, he knew about the Garrick Club--he was ignorant about anything else. Except, perhaps, about life." Moreover, states the biography, "A.A. Milne didn't write the stories and poems for children. He intended them for the child within us all."
Having already translated the four Milne books to the screen, the Disney folks wrote their own story line for this one, and thus the movie's prefacing words, "inspired by the books of A.A. Milne." For continuity, though, the new movie uses the voice talents of two actors from the old films: Paul Winchell as Tigger and John Fiedler as Piglet. (As an aside, I couldn't help remembering my own childhood when I think of Paul Winchell. The ventriloquist's old television show and his dummy pal Jerry Mahoney were favorites of mine; so much so that in the second or third grade I had a Jerry Mahoney dummy of my own. Wish I still had it.)
Anyway, the setup for the new adventure begins with the narrator (David Warner filling in for Sebastian Cabot) telling us "Once upon the last day of a golden summer..." Christopher Robin had to go to school. When he does, he writes a note to his stuffed-animal friends, telling them where he is going and why he won't be able to meet them at their usual play spot in the 100 Acre Wood. But the note gets covered in honey (guess who?) and the animals can't read it. They bring it to Owl (Andre Stojka) to decipher, and he misreads "school" as "skull." Oh, dear. What's to be done? Why, go after and rescue him, of course!
The bulk of the story involves Pooh (Jim Cummings), Tigger (Winchell), Piglet (Fiedler), Eeyore (Peter Cullen), and Rabbit (Ken Sansom) traipsing through what Owl tells them is the "great unknown" in their quest to save Christopher Robin from nameless peril. Most of the new voices don't have quite the same authority as the old ones, but Jim Cummings, who has done countless voice characterizations over the years, gives his all in recreating Sterling Holloway's friendly, gravelly voice as Pooh.
The "Grand Adventure" is basically a story of friendship and togetherness, with a strangely sad and nostalgic tone to it, perhaps a longing for lost innocence. It may move along rather slowly for an adult, but it has a sweet, gentle nature that goes a long way. Except toward the end, where it gets a little hectic and rambunctious, it reminded me a good deal of "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" and parts of "Sesame Street."
Then, too, this wouldn't be authentic Disney if there weren't songs involved, Disney being the one studio consistently to keep the movie musical alive. During the course of the adventure, we're treated to "Forever and Ever," a song about understanding and rapport with others; "Adventure Is a Wonderful Thing," the cutest song in the film, about the escapade the group is about to embark upon; "If It Says So, Then It Is So," about the infallibility of maps; "Wherever You Are," about friends sticking together; and "Everything Is Right," to tell us that everything has turned out all properly in the end.
Another nice thing we can usually depend on from Disney is the artwork, and here the Disney artists have created a wonderful visual look. The animators do things up in light watercolor blushes, with pen-and-ink details that are reminiscent of the books' illustrations. I would count the film as one of Disney's best-looking animations, not quite in the same category of naturalism as their first productions in the 1930s and 40s, different from that, but almost equally appealing. As a matter of fact, for many adults, the visual appearance of the film may be its biggest attraction; it surely was for me.
I'd make only one caution: There are parts of the movie that may be a tad intense for toddlers. Talk of a monster, a "skullosaurus," dark woods and caves, and scary situations may have the youngest of children hiding their eyes. Even I, no patron of heights, felt a mite queasy at the several dangerously high positions the characters find themselves in throughout their venture.
Pooh obviously represents that child within us that we all try to hang onto, no matter what our age. He's the friend who never deserts us, the feeling that no matter what, all is right with the world. It's that engaging spirit that "Pooh's Grand Adventure" tries to capture, and while it may not make it for every adult, it will surely captivate most youngsters.
The picture quality on this one, like many of Disney's recent DVD animations, is gorgeous. Using a high-bit-rate, anamorphic widescreen transfer filling out a 16x9 television screen, the video is excellent. The colors are bright and solid; the black levels are strong; the definition is precise; and the clarity is beyond reproach. Everything about the video is first rate, and for most adults with good TVs, the visuals, as I've said, may be the best part of the show.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also quite good. One gets a pleasant sense of surround from the soundtrack, with just enough musical resonance, animal noises, and directional effects to make for a realistic ambience. Factor in a wide dynamic range and some very deep bass, and you get a much better sonic experience than you might have expected from a children's movie.
There are several things on this Special Edition disc of interest. The first and most important is probably the bonus feature "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day." Made in 1968, it was Disney's second Pooh animation, and it tends to put into perspective the newer effort. This twenty-five minute short subject is more in keeping with the tenderhearted Milne spirit. It's in fullscreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, showing a few signs of wear but not much. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I enjoyed the look of the newer movie more. Next among the extras is "Pooh's Symphony," a six-minute look behind the scenes at the music in "Pooh's Grand Adventure." Then, there is the children's game "Pooh and Friends: Adventures in the 100 Acre Wood," colorful and challenging for the younger set.
In addition, the Disney folks provide a generous twenty-two scene selections, plus a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at eight other Disney titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Pooh's Grand Adventure" may be a little more adventurous than Milne's own stories, but there is no questioning its simple delights and unaffected charm. It may not keep every adult fully engaged all the time, but it should more than satisfy the youngsters it was intended to entertain.
A final word from Milne's biography: "The Pooh books are favourites with old and young alike and have been translated into almost every language. In 1985, the Russian translation, 'Vinnie Pookh,' sold more than three and a half million copies in the Soviet Union and, in the same year, the Latin version, 'Winnie Ille Pu,' became the first book in a foreign language to be included in the bestseller list in the United States. Soon after the publication of 'Winnie-the-Pooh,' Milne wrote in the Nation: 'I suppose that every one of us hopes secretly for immortality; to leave, I mean, a name behind him which will live forever in this world, whatever he may be doing, himself, in the next.'"