So I’m watching “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” hoping to see some housewife-on-housewife violence, the way we all do, and right in the middle of it there’s a spot for Disney’s new “Winnie the Pooh” movie.
Yes, really, a spot for the new “Winnie the Pooh” movie in the middle of “Real Housewives of New Jersey.” Not for “Transformers 3 With Dumb Stuff on the Moon and That Victoria’s Secret Model.” A commercial for nice, sweet “Winnie the Pooh.” This actually happened.
Another thing that actually happened: Within 20 seconds I was fighting back tears.
The commercial begins with all the characters you’ve known your entire life happily marching along, a floating red balloon drifting up into the air over a bed of British pop band Keane’s heartbreaking piano-ballad “Somewhere Only We Know.” Then Pooh announces, “We have a very important thing to do.” Clearly, that important thing involves disarming adults and rendering them powerless to the charms of a cartoon character they might have forgotten they loved.
I had wondered how the resolutely old-fashioned “Winnie the Pooh” could survive the theatrical market’s need to emulate the too-grown-up-too-fast tone of the “Shrek” franchise. More than any other series aimed at the family audience in the past 10 years, “Shrek” and its endless imitators have helped turn children’s cinema into a litter box of visually frenzied animation and bad attitude starring digital chipmunks, a smart-aleck Russell Brand-voiced Easter Bunny, penguins that defecate all over Jim Carrey, guinea pigs who are also international spies and another bear named Yogi who found himself updated via digital 3-D, inserted into a live-action setting and forced to dance to “Baby Got Back.”
So not a person alive could blame me for being scared for the soft-spoken Pooh, his friends, today’s very young target audience, my own childhood memories and the viability of old-school 2-D animation.
But I don’t wonder anymore. I see where Disney is going with this. Based on the heavily nostalgia-steeped marketing campaign surrounding the release of “Winnie the Pooh” on July 15, I realize that 4-year-old kids aren’t the bullseye. I am.
Obviously, I’m expected to find a willing 4-year-old to bring with me, but it’s the household decision makers who are being courted and wooed here. Disney wants to reach out to the child inside the grown-ups who must drive the kids to the theater, hoping that those grown-ups will transfer their lifelong affection for The Hundred Acre Wood to a new generation.
That’s why that Keane song is so prominently placed, its yearning lyric “Oh simple thing where have you gone?” given prime space in the trailer. It’s meant to beckon 40-year-olds to give 70 minutes to the memory of a time when mortgages and health insurance weren’t even looming on the need-to-know vocabulary list. In this relaunched “Winnie the Pooh,” the biggest concern is finding Eeyore’s lost tail.
On YouTube, where the movie’s full-length trailer has more than a million hits, the usual inflammatory and profane comments section has turned into a confessional, with “WHY AM I WEEPING OVER THIS THING? I’M AN ADULT!” dominating the discussion. And a series of online “Thotful Spot” (traditional Pooh spelling, of course) promotions feature hand-drawn Eeyore, Pooh and Piglet alongside tender quotes from the A.A. Milne books such as “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”
TODAY Moms: 'Pooh' strikes blow for movie innocence
Clearly, you don’t sell a movie to toddlers with such adult allusions, but you do sell their sensitive, literate, book-pushing parents. It’s sort of cruel, really, to so skillfully activate grown-up tear ducts with advertising. But if The Corporation is going to try to make us buy something — and it will, forever — then why not give power back to parents who’d love the chance to guide their kids to classic children’s animation?
This scenario also gives Disney a chance to retro-brand their product after years of dilution and ill-considered attempts. (Biggest mistake: Tigger re-enacting the famous Marilyn Monroe up-blown skirt moment in 2000’s “The Tigger Movie.”) The manic energy of everything else around — including recent Disney efforts like “Tangled” — just isn’t a good fit for the animals in the Hundred Acre Wood, and the hand-drawn, 2-D style is a welcome signal that vintage Pooh is back. Purists can breathe a little more easily.
The film is opening on the same day as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” hoping to siphon off parents of the very young for whom the Potter saga is too adult and intense. It’s fitting, in a way, for a project that seems determined not to participate in modernity on any level besides employing the services of a weepy Britpop hit. It’s classic counter-programming, on the weekend when the J.K. Rowling earthquake rolls across the entire country, for there to be another option, one that’s sweet, quiet and kind instead of epic, violent and loud.
For a minute there, it might even feel like the media machine’s agenda isn’t simply to shake you down for cash. Instead, the restoration of some integrity to a beloved cultural offering, one where there’s almost no exception to the rule of generosity and care, one that’s meant so much to so many people for so long, was at least part of the plan. It’s almost enough to make you shed some tears of joy.
Dave White is a film critic for Movies.com