The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was a feature-length, Technicolor (!), animated film released by Walt Disney Productions in March, 1977.
Except it wasn’t. Wasn’t a feature, that is. It was actually a re-packaging of three earlier “featurettes”, which had adapted portions of the two original Pooh books by A.A. Milne. Those three shorts were called WtP and the Honey Tree (1966), WtP and the Blustery Day (1968), and WtP and Tigger, Too! (1974). On the first two shorts, Walt was actually involved himself, thus making Many Adventures, in 1977, the last Disney film that actually had Walt’s own fingerprints on it before he died. And the middle featurette, Blustery Day, deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short (click to review some of the best-loved cartoons of yesteryear).
But the innovations that made Many Adventures into a quality feature film, more than just yesterday’s warmed-over lunch –aside from the great characters, stories and dialogue created by Milne, of course — was the newly-created material (mostly on connective scenes) featuring the golden-throated Sebastian Cabot as the narrator. (Remember him? The butler on that old tv show Family Affair?) Plus Disney’s 1977 producers also created a poignant new scene for the end, featuring just Pooh and Christopher Robin, based on the final chapter of House at Pooh Corner (1928).
Stephen Graydanus of decentfilms.com, a featured reviewer at Rotten Tomatoes, puts the Disney treatment of Pooh this way:
What a peculiar genius was A. A. Milne…Pooh and friends, though visually cutened from Ernest H. Shepard’s classic illustrations, somehow emerge from the Disneyfication process more unmistakably themselves than any other literary characters in any other Disney cartoon, while Milne’s distinctive voice retains its quality, with a clarity and integrity exceeding that of any other author Disney adapted.
My blog post yesterday discussed Milne’s “distinctive voice” in some fairly specific ways. So the main thing I will add today is a look at some of the voice talents from the film, the veteran actors whose voices made Milne’s words and characters so amusing onscreen. A few of them voiced their characters for almost forty years, in fact.
The voice of Pooh was provided by character actor Sterling Holloway from 1966-1979. He probably looks familiar, as he acted in dozens of movies and tv shows (and on radio) over a forty-five year career. Here’s his picture:
The other well-known actor who (like Holloway) also did other Disney films (and lots of tv) was John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet. He should look familiar, too. One of those sweet faces that, once you’ve seen it, it’s burned into your memory:
This guy could sneeze and it would be entertaining to me. Fiedler was another of those workhorse character actors (171 IMDB onscreen credits) who seldom carry a picture or a television episode, but always elevate it to a higher level. He was featured prominently in some Oscar-winners, too, like 12 Angry Men. Once in awhile, these top quality “nobodies” get to steal a scene, but only the most serious movie buffs know who these type of actors are during their own era, let alone in prior eras.
Fiedler’s last “appearance” on the big screen as Piglet was in 2005’s Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, a saccharine, middle-of-the-road project that I was nevertheless proud to take my three-year-old son to see as his first official movie in the theater. Any movie with Pooh, no matter how commercial or hollow, beats Ninja Turtles and Spidermen, hands down. Pooh even beats out Sponge Bob and Homer for me, though not by much.
The third major talent featured in the Pooh films of the “classic” era was Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger.
The dummy is in front. “Winch” was brilliant, and his dummy Jerry Mahoney may have been even more famous than him. Jerry made Winchell the heir-apparent to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Winchell was all about the voice, as he had apparently started out as a ventriloquist, and was not as odd or distinctive-looking as Holloway or Fiedler when appearing on-camera. So, for example, Winchell was the voice of Fleegle on the Banana Splits, and did various voices on a number of classic Hannah-Barbera cartoons, including Hong Kong Phooey and “Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines” (he was Dick Dastardly, a character who he originated on the cartoon “Wacky Races”).
However, Winchell might have had a love-hate thing going on with the Tigger character, as he walked out after the first season of the mediocre tv series The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988-91). He also did not appear in 2000’s The Tigger Movie. (Jim Cummings, the current main voice of both Pooh and Tigger, did both voices in that movie.) Winchell did come back to do Tigger proud one last time: in 1997’s direct-to-video Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin. Our family owns it, and while the writing’s a bit thin, it’s not a bad movie overall.
Coincidentally, Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger, died June 24, 2005, the day before John “Piglet” Fiedler’s death. And here’s another lesser-known piece of trivia: Roo was voiced in two of the three original featurettes by Clint Howard, younger brother of Ron Howard. Clint’s a fairly unique and hardworking character actor in his own right, from the Gentle Ben tv show in the Sixties when he was a funny-looking kid, all the way up through today (185 screen credits and counting).
The last thing I want to say about The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is that it stands up pretty well as a film, doing some very creative things that the A.A. Milne books could not do, simply because they were books. For one thing, there’s those memorable songs by the Sherman Brothers. Though Milne had included some great poems and “hums” in the books, it’s just so much nicer to have inventive rhymes and full instrumentation in the movie.
And then there’s Tigger and Roo’s brilliant stuck in the tree scene, possibly the most “meta” moment in animated film history (at least until the Simpsons came along). By meta, I mean that it’s a scene which calls attention to the fact that its in a movie (by having the characters talk to the unseen narrator), then points out the movie is based on a book, and that the book has a certain look and format. Then the filmmakers break all the usual rules about storytelling. They resolve their character’s crisis by turning the animated book sideways, and letting Tigger get down out of the tree by sliding on the letters printed on the page alongside his picture. It’s just a brilliant little visual twist, true to the spirit of Milne’s whimsical style, though it’s a “color outside the lines” moment he could not have thought to do conceptually in 1928 when he wrote the original scene in the novel.
Oh, bother. By now, I’ve probably bored you quite enough with all this minutiae about a 30-40 year old kids’ movie. Oh well, I’m having fun, anyway.