Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh
Walt Disney had wanted to make a film based on A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh for a very long time. His daughter, Diane, had been a big fan of the books growing up and Walt started making inquiries in 1938, when Diane would have been about five years old. By the time he got the rights in 1961, his daughter was 27 and married to future Disney CEO Ron Miller with kids of their own. Walt’s original plan was to make a Winnie-The-Pooh feature but at some point, he changed plans and decided the material was better suited for a short subject.
And yet, more than a decade after Walt’s death, Disney finally stitched together the feature-length The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh (Milne’s hyphens got lost somewhere along the way). In an earlier age, this would have been considered a package film like Make Mine Music or The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. But since the three Pooh shorts had already been released and there’s very little new material, this is really a clip show like The Best Of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures. Fortunately, it’s about a hundred times more entertaining than that earlier attempt.
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Walt lived long enough to see one short, Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree, released alongside the Dean Jones comedy The Ugly Dachshund. It was an immediate success, outlasting The Ugly Dachshund and playing with Disney’s other 1966 releases, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. and The Fighting Prince Of Donegal. Walt gave the okay for a follow-up but died in December 1966 before much work could be done on it.
The second featurette, Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day, was released in 1968 with another Dean Jones comedy, The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit. This one proved even more popular than the first. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject, clinching Walt’s place in the record books for the most Oscars given to an individual (22 wins and 59 nominations, for those of you keeping score at home). Even after his death, the Academy couldn’t stop giving Oscars to this guy.
After all that, a third featurette was a foregone conclusion. Winnie The Pooh And Tigger Too came out in 1974 with The Island At The Top Of The World (I guess Dean Jones was busy elsewhere that year). It was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Will Vinton’s groundbreaking Claymation short Closed Mondays. By that point, Disney’s Winnie The Pooh didn’t need extra validation. The little bear had become one of the studio’s most popular characters, overcoming naysayers (particularly in the British press) who complained about the liberties taken with Milne’s originals.
Combining the three shorts into the feature-length The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh must have been a no-brainer. After The Best Of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures kicked the door open to reassembled clip shows in 1975, someone at the studio probably started rummaging through the library to see what else could be cobbled together. Considering how many short films the studio produced over the years, it’s a little surprising they didn’t release more of these. But the Winnie The Pooh shorts were particularly well-suited to this treatment. They’re thematically and stylistically consistent. And Disney has always targeted their Pooh material at young children. The audience for The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh wasn’t even born when the first short was released.
Of course, there could have been a few pitfalls to combining the three shorts. First and foremost, the film(s) utilize three different Christopher Robins and two Roos. Bruce Reitherman, the son of director Wolfgang Reitherman and the voice of Mowgli in The Jungle Book, was the original Christopher Robin. He was replaced by Jon Walmsley of The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band for Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day. Finally, Timothy Turner stepped into Christopher’s Mary Jane shoes for Winnie The Pooh And Tigger Too. Christopher’s accent does get noticeably more British as the film goes on but it’s not a distraction. You’d have to be paying close attention to notice that three different boys play the role.
Roo has a somewhat smaller role, so it’s even easier to accept the vocal discontinuity. Clint Howard, who’d also voiced a character in The Jungle Book and was last seen in this column alongside his brother Ron in The Wild Country, plays Roo in the first two shorts. In the third, Roo gets a girl’s voice as Dori Whitaker from Robin Hood inherits the role. Again, the transition is relatively seamless.
The spot-on vocal casting is a big reason why Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is so memorable. In many cases, the same actors continued to voice their characters whenever they’d turn up for as long as they were physically able. John Fiedler, last seen in The Shaggy D.A., provided the voice of Piglet right up to his death in 2005. Hal Smith, who would also eventually take over as Pooh, voiced Owl on TV and film for years.
The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh also marks one of the first times when actors were given specific credit for the roles they voiced. For many years, Walt refused to give voice actors an on-screen credit at all for fear it would break the spell of animation. He wanted Snow White to be known as Snow White, not Adriana Caselotti. That slowly began to change when he began hiring folks like Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone who were already famous and whose voices were instantly recognizable. But for the most part, actors were simply listed alphabetically at the start of the film with no indication what roles they were playing.
This time, the opening credits single out Sterling Holloway as Pooh and Paul Winchell as Tigger. Holloway had been with the studio for a long time, beginning with Dumbo. Since then, he’d voiced such iconic characters as the Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland, Kaa in The Jungle Book and Roquefort in The Aristocats. Winnie The Pooh would become Holloway’s best-loved character. Holloway passed away in 1992, one year after becoming the first vocal talent to be honored as a Disney Legend.
Paul Winchell had not been Disney’s first choice for Tigger. Before his death, Walt had recommended Wally Boag for the part. Boag, the so-called “Clown Prince of Disneyland”, was known for his performances at the park’s Golden Horseshoe Revue and had small parts in movies like The Absent Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber. But after Walt’s death, Reitherman decided Boag was a little much, even for Tigger.
Paul Winchell was a ventriloquist and comedian who rose to fame in the 1940s and 50s. He was also a former medical student and inventor who held the first patent for an artificial heart, which is crazy to think about. Imagine if your cardiologist sounded like Tigger. Anyway, at Disney, he’d voiced Shun Gun the Siamese cat, nobody’s favorite character from The Aristocats. He went on to amass a lengthy resume in voice acting, especially for Hanna-Barbera, including the character Gargamel on The Smurfs. He continued to provide the voice of Tigger through the late 1990s and we will hear his voice again in this column.
Unfortunately, this will be the last time we hear the work of the Sherman Brothers for quite some time. Considering that the most recent of the shorts had been released in 1974, they’d actually been away from Disney for awhile when The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh came out. Since then, they’d made several movie musicals where they were credited with the screenplay as well as the songs. Walt had relied on the boys to help break the stories of movies like Mary Poppins but they never received a writing credit at Disney, so it’s understandable that they’d want a little more control and recognition at this point in their careers.
The Sherman Brothers’ non-Disney career got off to an auspicious start with the 1973 musical Tom Sawyer starring Disney alumni Johnny Whitaker and Jodie Foster. But later projects, like The Slipper And The Rose and especially The Magic Of Lassie, didn’t capture any of the same magic. In the years ahead, the Shermans would occasionally return to Disney to work on a theme park attraction or television project. But they won’t be back in this column until we get to the year 2000 and The Tigger Movie. And that’s assuming anybody still cares about this project by then, including me. But hope springs eternal, so instead of saying goodbye to the Sherman Brothers, let’s just say TTFN.
Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh is that it makes you forget these are three separate shorts, produced over the course of ten years or more. The movie feels organic, like it was always meant to be this way even though it very much was not. The Shermans’ songs are terrific and sticky but so unobtrusive that many of them barely register as songs. They’re simply part of the overall fabric creating this contained, comforting world.
The animation style, which is extremely clever without being show-offy, also plays a huge role in building that world. Directors Wolfgang Reitherman and John Lounsbery never lose sight of the conceit that these characters live within the confines of a book. This gives the animators plenty of opportunities to have fun with page layout and typeface. If The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh had a scent, it would smell like a library.
The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh was released on March 11, 1977, as a co-feature with The Littlest Horse Thieves. I couldn’t find any reliable box office data for Winnie The Pooh but The Littlest Horse Thieves was listed in Variety’s year-end report. My guess is that since the Pooh cartoons were essentially previously released shorts, the double feature was listed under the new, live-action release. If that’s the case, the movies did…um, not great. Horse Thieves raked in just over 2 million bucks, appearing on Variety’s list just behind David Cronenberg’s Rabid (yep, these movies existed at the same time as Rabid…wrap your brain around that one, if you can).
On the one hand, it couldn’t have cost much for Disney to reedit the shorts and add a little bit more narration by Sebastian Cabot to link everything together. But on the other, that $2.1 million is actually a little less than some of Disney’s other free-money reissues of 1977. Fantasia, The Boatniks and The Gnome-Mobile all revisited theatres that year and did a little better. But so did Never A Dull Moment, Alice In Wonderland, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, and Darby O’Gill And The Little People and it did better than any of them.
Besides, the success of Winnie The Pooh was never just about the films. It was about the stuff. Disney had entered an exclusive partnership with Sears to market a whole line of Winnie The Pooh plush toys, clothes, bedroom sets and other assorted gewgaws. This was a lucrative arrangement for both the studio and the retailer. I couldn’t even tell you how many stuffed Winnie The Pooh toys I saw back in the 1970s. Those things were everywhere.
Disney wasn’t done with Winnie The Pooh, not by a longshot. After making a brief comeback in the 1981 educational short Winnie The Pooh Discovers The Seasons, Pooh made a bigger return in 1983. A new short film, Winnie The Pooh And A Day For Eeyore, was released in theatres alongside a reissue of The Sword In The Stone. That same year, Pooh and friends came to (more or less) live action with the Disney Channel series Welcome To Pooh Corner, a fairly primitive combination of puppets, actors in full costume and chromakey backgrounds aimed at the very small. I remember my little brother watching it and Dumbo’s Circus in the wee hours of the morning. Those bizarre shows probably made more of an impression on me than him.
Since then, Walt Disney’s Winnie The Pooh has never really gone away. The characters have appeared on television, in video games, in direct-to-video movies and specials, and even in a theme park ride named after this very movie. But we won’t see them back in this column until the aforementioned A Tigger Movie shows up.
It’s funny that the characters most associated with Disney (Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Pooh, you know the lineup), don’t really factor into a project that’s all about watching Disney movies. They’ve shown up occasionally but those appearances just underscore the fact that the Disney brand has always been about so much more than just movies. Pooh appeared in theaters in 1977 as an afterthought. It was an established brand that could generate income for the studio. But because Walt and Wolfgang Reitherman and the voice actors and everyone else involved with the short subjects had done such superlative work, the film is now regarded as a classic and not a cash-grab. That in itself is an impressive achievement. After all, the most wonderful thing about The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh was never that it was the only one. It’s simply the one we remember. The one we come back to. It’s nice to know that silly old bear will be there waiting for us whenever we choose to visit.
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