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'Pooh' craves sweet spot between old and new

When the filmmakers of "Winnie the Pooh" were tasked by the Walt Disney Co. with creating a new story about the honey-loving bear two years ago, they had no interest in computer-generating Pooh and his friends.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the filmmakers of "Winnie the Pooh" were tasked by the Walt Disney Co. with creating a new story about the honey-loving bear two years ago, they had no interest in computer-generating Pooh and his friends.

They also wanted no part in projecting Pooh's latest Hundred Acre Wood adventure in three dimensions or upgrading his classic bound storybook to a tablet computer.

Instead, directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall sought to faithfully return Pooh to his hand-drawn origins for a feature film reminiscent of the 1960s' Pooh shorts, while also appealing to kids who've grown up with the action of "Toy Story" and "Cars."

"After we watched the first 'Pooh' films, we felt strongly those characters would still be funny," said Hall. "The pacing was our challenge. We knew the pacing in those old films would not work, but we couldn't crank it up to the level of today's films because it would break 'Winnie the Pooh.' We had to find a line and walk it. That took the most work."

"Winnie the Pooh," debuting in the U.S. on Friday, will be the first time the Hundred Acre Wood residents of A.A. Milne's beloved books have marched into theaters since 2005's "Pooh's Heffalump Movie." In recent years, Pooh and pals have strayed away from their storybook roots, appearing in direct-to-DVD movies and as puppets and computer-generated characters in Disney Channel series.

"When a character has been around for as many incarnations as Pooh, you sometimes don't realize when you drift away from the source material that made it resonate in the first place," said voice actor Tom Kenny, who plays control freak Rabbit. "In the same way that I think it's smart to reboot 007 or Batman, that's basically what they did with Pooh."

Jim Cummings, who has portrayed Pooh for more than 25 years in films, TV shows and video games, returns as the voice of Pooh and Tigger, as does Travis Oates as Piglet. New actors take on the other roles, including talk show host Craig Ferguson as know-it-all Owl and Pixar and Sesame Street animator Bud Luckey as loveably dismal donkey Eeyore. John Cleese narrates.

"We asked ourselves if the characters were more defined by their voice or more defined by their personality, with the voice not mattering so much," said Anderson. "If you don't have the voices of Pooh, Tigger, Eyore and Piglet, people are going to go nuts. Those had to be imitations of the originals. That wasn't so for other characters like Owl and Rabbit."

The new film's plot is loosely based on stories from Milne's books and follows Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Owl and Eeyore as they search for both a missing Christopher Robin and a new tail for Eeyore. Along the way, the critters encounter a mysterious creature called a Backson, who was briefly mentioned in 1928's "The House at Pooh Corner."

The illustrative journey was drawn by hand at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, Calif. Yet this "Pooh" isn't totally an old-school endeavor. Animators' drawings were scanned into computers instead of copied, and the images, including the watercolor backdrops, were digitally painted, not filled in by actual brushes.

The other new element in this edition of "Pooh" was the use of actress-singer Zooey Deschanel as the film's musical narrator. Deschanel croons the classic opening theme, as well other ditties laced throughout the film. The cast and crew are hoping the old-fashioned touches appeal to young and old alike, as well as reinvigorate the 85-year-old franchise.

"These movies last forever," said Cummings. "'Snow White' was done in 1939, and you can go to your video store and watch it now. You want it to be good because it's going to outlast me, you and all of us. There is definitely a pressure there to perform. I never leave the fight in the gym. I bring it every time. I shoot for a home run with every line."