Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXVII: When we were very young


Directed by John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman

Spoiler alert: well, he's not eaten by heffalumps, is he?

Though post-dating his death by more than a decade, 1977's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is, in some ways, the summation of the approach Walt Disney had brought to his animation during the 50s and 60s, and which had continued apace under his successors in the 70s.  So: it is based on episodic British children's literature—literature for rather young children, at that.  It is almost completely devoid of threat, or (with very few exceptions) even especially bad vibes, and it banks everything it has on being as mild as possible while still telling something akin to "a story," though of course it's much more akin to a string of amusing anecdotes.  And it's visibly cheap, too, largely undemanding in terms of either technology or craft.  On the other hand, it also proved an enduring cultural phenomenon, recently valued at around six billion-with-a-"b" dollars; and while being genuinely popular (or genuinely profitable) already marks it as distinct from much of Disney's product between 1961 and 1989, the real difference is that, with few fellows to keep it company in this early stretch of the Xerography Era, it's actually really good.  Yet the most surprising thing of all is that it's good because it embodied every trend of that era.  Even its immediate predecessor, Robin Hood—the only other Disney cartoon of the 70s with any noticeable legacy—gets there in part by somewhat fighting against the current, using an inherently dramatic legend upon which to hang the studio's obligatory fatuous nonsense.

The Many Adventures, meanwhile, is very content to go with the flow; indeed, it's quite happy to meander around without much of a point to its existence, insofar as it only develops a point roughly ninety seconds before it ends.  Its closest comparison in the Disney stable isn't even an animated feature, but Mary Poppins.  Both are explicitly celebrations of childhood play and silliness, which is why they both manage to appeal to adults almost as readily than they do kids, and each taps into a truly fearsome nostalgia, not so much on their own behalf, but for one's own mistily-recalled innocence.  (I suspect that both Mary Poppins and The Many Adventures could still "work," at least in theory, even if you only watched them for the very first time as a grown-up.  Needless to say, it's hard to test this experimentally.)  Either way, this makes The Many Adventures, which is about children, easy to distinguish from crap like The Sword In the Stone or The Aristocats (or even from Robin Hood), which are merely for children.

The Many Adventures is the culmination of Walt's work in a literal way too, of course, for it's also the last feature for which any animation or story was actually overseen by the founder, despite arriving so late after his passing in 1966.  (Such are the production realities of the interregnum period, which can frankly make things a little confusing: which is truly the last "Walt Disney film," The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, or this?)  Sometimes called the last of the package films, The Many Adventures binds together, with a little bit of new material, three previously-released shorts, namely 1966's "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree," 1968's "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," and 1974's "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too."  The six year gap between the second and third featurette tells us that the long-term plan which Walt had devised in the early 60s had been put on hiatus after his death, but that plan went like this: fretful that Americans were not sufficiently familiar with A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books, Walt had schemed to get them familiar by releasing short subjects alongside his movies, even though a full Pooh feature was always his ultimate goal.  (Another way that it connects with Mary Poppins is that the genesis of the projects is almost contemporaneous.  Another way still—and I mention it just because it's charming—is that Walt apparently sometimes confused Milne and Travers' books in his memory, and while he had spoken warmly of discovering Mary Poppins decades prior by way of his daughters, Diane Disney Miller was pretty sure what they showed him was actually Winnie-the-Pooh.)

The result, in any event, feels more monolithic than it possibly ought (certainly more than it really is), perhaps simply because it was always going to be a sequence of episodic mini-narratives, no matter how you sliced it.  Perhaps it's because the way it buttons its ending feels so essential and necessary for it to function that it's hard to even imagine it as three little disconnected cartoons.  A big part of it, however, is stylistic.  The Many Adventures can be viewed through the cold lens of watching Disney's animators deal with the new reality of xerography over the course of eight years—seventeen, with "A Day For Eeyore," a short released in 1983, which I personally always watch alongside it—but for all that, there are absolute unities, and the biggest one is the way it brings us into the book written by A.A. Milne for the fictionalized version of his son, Christopher Robin (Jon Walmsley, who re-recorded dialogue for consistency, overwriting the aged-out Bruce Reitherman and Timothy Turner in the process).  And so we find ourselves in a little boy's room, as a narrator (Sebastian Cabot) turns our attention to a certain book, and, as of yet, it's not too unlike the manifold illuminated storybook openings that were by this point a Disney cliché.

However, when we enter this book, we enter it, and we stay there.  The Many Adventures continually emphasizes the physical existence of its pages, its paper, and even its words, in a constantly-delightful interplay between the viewer, the narrator, the text, and the characters—the latter of which can hear the narrator, and are generally quite well aware of their place in this story (down to the page number)—and this all starts almost the instant the film does, as the Sherman Brothers' terrifically hummable "Winnie the Pooh" plays.  (The Many Adventures was also the Shermans' last Disney film.)  Here we become acquainted with a map of Christopher Robin's Hundred Acre Woods (which, in the mind of a child, is naturally barely distinct from the territory), while the song introduces us to all the loveable figments of Christopher Robin's imagination who inhabit it.

Something of this was already present in Milne's stories, though it was Wolfgang Reitherman—to whom Walt had entrusted the project, and who was, by 1977, functionally in charge of the animation studio itself—who had had the minor genius to adapt it with such visual flair.  It leaves The Many Adventures the most rewardingly metafictional experience in the Disney canon, which tends to eschew such things beyond little in-jokes, though The Many Adventures has that, too, with Gopher (Howard Morris)—a character introduced in "Honey Tree" because the storymen and animators were worried it wasn't conventionally funny enough—repeatedly reminding us that he's "not in the book."

Reitherman's emphasis on the book meant that it had to look like the book, too—especially since Milne's stories are maybe just as famous for E.H. Shepherd's pen-and-ink illustrations.  The Many Adventures does not precisely replicate them (though a court thought they replicated them closely enough for a lawsuit to proceed); it certainly captures the spirit of them.  Along with Robin Hood and One Hundred and One Dalmatians, it's the third of three examples of Disney's early xerography process actually paying off in aesthetic dividends.  In fact, it's the only one that feels like there was never any other way to do it, like there's some alternate universe ink-and-paint version that could, at least hypothetically, be better.  The three shorts even get cleaner and more elegant as they go along, and I'm of two minds about this: "Honey Tree" does all the things I usually dislike about xerography, but it all feels so correct; there's even one part, where Pooh falls from the tree, that leaves in so many construction marks, as if to emphasize the suddenness of the drop, that I half-wonder if it might have genuinely been done on-purpose.  (On the plus side, it's "Honey Tree" alone that ever deeply interrogates the stuffed construction of our protagonist, and not doing this is, I think, an unambiguously good thing, insofar as The Many Adventures is not one bit well-served by any of the low-key body horror this entails, like Pooh's covering tearing because he's too fat, or—in my least-favorite moment in the film—his head turning a full 360 degrees, which doesn't even accord with the "stuffed animal" conceit.)

Anyway, there is less of this as the shorts continue chronologically through the studio's development of its technique, but there's still a sufficient amount of scratchiness and debris that it's noticeable.  One of the things it evokes, fittingly enough, with its simple character designs, is a child learning to draw, and that's just downright adorable.  (The backgrounds also get more detailed as the film advances—maybe it's even a child's memories solidifying as they grow older—but I'll gesture again at "A Day For Eeyore."  The follow-up short must've had actual money thrown at it, because besides the xerography of 1983 appearing so much cleaner than that of the 60s and 70s, it also features a really lovingly-done forest, still in The Many Adventures' graphic style, but also vastly more-detailed and colorful, including some nice water animation that—in contravention of Disney's usual water animation—maintains that pen-and-ink aesthetic.)  Finally, as long as we're talking about The Many Adventures' animation, I'd be remiss not to mention "Heffalumps and Woozles," which is a bizarre stylistic breakdown that aims to pay homage to the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence from Dumbo—heck, even the Shermans' accompanying tune borrows liberally from the Sportsmen's.  It's hard to square with anything else here, except, I suppose, children do sometimes have lurid flights of fancy: "Heffalumps and Woozles" is modestly terrifying, and about as fluid as this era of Disney could get (I especially admire the work that went into the brief but impressive few seconds where the imagined beasts are rendered in fluctuating plaids), and this means it's an appropriate "Pink Elephants" homage, at the very least.

The story, or stories, while full of low-impact incident, are both fairly well-known and not terribly critical; I don't believe I need to recap them in any detail.  The important part is how they impart upon us the gentle mood of the proceedings, and (more to the point) ingratiate us to the whimsical characters, who exist in Christopher Robin's head but only occasionally require his presence to exist, usually when they need him to figure something out for them, which, oddly (or not-so-oddly), he's still not very good at himself.  There is a line of thought, forwarded in a number of third-party books which I'm sure are quite hackish and terrible, and which you'll often find repeated uncritically, that the creatures of Christopher Robin's imagination represent some qualities that one ought to aspire to; it's a bit perverse, isn't it?  They're wonderful little creations, all of them, but they are, almost uniformly, fashioned out of comically exaggerated childhood traits, and never positive ones—which of course they couldn't be, since children don't have positive traits, and half the stuff you get up to as a kid would rightly earn you a punch in the mouth as an adult.

And so Winnie the Pooh (Sterling Holloway) is, speaking frankly, composed of an almost unalloyed self-centered avarice, mostly expressed through his gluttony and his worrying sense of entitlement to other people's stuff, expressed most fiercely in his thought processes concerning the reason that bees exist.  The rest follow this general trend, incarnating their single traits to the utmost as well: Rabbit (Junius Matthews) is a being of officious resentment, who can barely stand any of the other characters; Owl (Hal Smith) is a know-it-all who knows almost nothing, and would love to spend the whole day telling you all about it; Eeyore (Ralph Wright) is the sadsack embodiment of performative depression who's arrived at a point of diminishing returns in terms of how much extra attention this gains him; Piglet (John Fiedler) is physical and social anxiety taken to the point of dysfunction; and Tigger (Paul Winchell), of course, is any parent's worst Goddamn nightmare.  But even as exaggerations, they're instantly recognizable, often as the children we used to be, and (in some ways) still are—like many of the self-selecting population of people who have opinions about Winnie the Pooh on the Internet, I personally obviously identify most strongly with Eeyore.  (And yes, this leaves out Kanga (Barbara Luddy) and little Roo (Clint Howard/Dori Whitaker), but then, they just kind of exist, mostly I presume because they existed in the book.  They're pleasant, but if they don't fit into this scheme, it's because they don't have much of any personality at all; still, I suppose that Roo could be an imaginary little brother, if you wanted.)

They're all perfectly crafted—I was an adult before I even recognized that some of them were stuffed dolls, and some were "real" animals, and it's still the weirdest and most inexplicable thing about the Hundred Acre Wood to me—and they're even more perfectly voiced, with Reitherman and company finding the precise right person for every role, from Wright—not even a voice actor, but a storyman who wound up fortuitously cast as Eeyore during development—all the way up to Holloway himself, the Winnie the Pooh, absolutely flawless at finding the minimal dimensions of this bear of very little brain.  (Though, by the same token, the equation of Holloway's extremely-recognizable voice with Winnie the Pooh does no favors at all to his many other Disney roles, because every time you're confronted with a Holloway character trying to eat Mowgli, or condescendingly explaining Prokofiev to you, or whatever, all you ever can hear is Winnie the Pooh.)

These caricatures bounce off one another, sometimes literally, and while the story is presented as gently and calmly as possible, they are an abrasive group to one another, and someone is always in conflict with someone else—even making enemies, and poor Rabbit, he's got nothing but enemies, doesn't he?—but if there's a moral for kids in this kid's cartoon, it's that you do have to get along with everybody anyway, and leaving your friend to die in the woods isn't a good solution to your problems, even if, in honesty, Tigger is scarcely anything besides a problem.  Mostly, though, there is no moral, just the free-floating feeling of observing a child engage with a story they're reading—and interpreting, and making up—as they go along.

Which is tremendously nice in its way, and certainly The Many Adventures' key virtue is its niceness, though it can also be easy for one's attention to drift a bit as it plays out (which is one reason why I'm very glad "Heffalumps and Woozles" is here); plus, in case you couldn't tell, I find Tigger slightly annoying.  (That's mostly deliberate and, indeed, productive; the part that's unintentional and disappointing, however, is that the recycling of Milt Kahl's labor-intensive Tigger animation—done for what were initially separate shorts, in fairness—is very noticeable in the feature, in part down to the fact that Winchell also recycles lines, and it's probably the most obnoxiously-repetitive recycling in the canon.)

I also suspect I overrate how minute-for-minute enjoyable The Many Adventures actually is because I can't disentangle it from "A Day For Eeyore," which might be on the blu-ray but isn't, properly speaking, part of this movie at all—but then, it's by far the most overtly funny thing in this early part of the Disney Pooh cycle, and it's also by far the most concentrated dose of Eeyore, who's in The Many Adventures way less than you probably remember.  (As "A Day For Eeyore" is perhaps less well-known, I'll sum it up by saying that Pooh and Piglet, concerned about their friend, contrive to celebrate his birthday, and through their characteristic foibles, ruin it, but in the end it's the thought that counts—or, at least, a donkey of very little self-esteem will take it.  Also, we get a good look at just how stupid and illiterate Owl is, which is pretty hilarious.)

Well, it's all very cute, these Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but it winds up being underlined with real meaning and even urgency in its tiny slip of an epilogue, for it's here that Christopher Robin explains to Pooh that he'll be leaving this Hundred Acre Wood.  Soon, he'll be going to school, and, not long afterwards, he'll be growing up.  The final exchange, where Chrstopher Robin asks his imaginary friend to remember him—even when he's a hundred ("How old will I be?" "99, silly old bear")—lands with an emotional weight rarely exceeded by any movie, no doubt because after 71 1/2 minutes that are, not to put to fine a point on it, stuffed with fluff, you just can't see it coming, even when you already know it's there.  It's almost unquestionable that Christopher Robin will never see his best friend again.   And so it's precisely here that the goofy lark of six year old boy, written and animated for an audience of roughly the same age, is transformed instead into a powerful portal into the past for an adult, through which we also desperately hope the person we used to be will remember us—just like we hope we can remember them.

Score: 8/10

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