When John Lasseter, artistic godfather of Pixar Animation Studios, was put in charge of pretty much the entire animated output of both that company and its new parent, Walt Disney Animation Studios during the merger of those two companies in 2006, it was at least partially with the hope that he'd be able to do something to reverse the incredible, and incredibly fast, decline in the Disney brand name, which had gone in only about ten years from the instant-classic smash hits Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King to embarrassing misfires, bordering on sick jokes, like Treasure Planet, Chicken Little, and their ilk. Whether this new mission included the directive, "make more old-fashioned movies", we can reasonably doubt, yet it is undeniably the case that Lasseter's tenure as Chief Creative Officer resulted, fairly quickly, in a deliberately conservative return to form. After forcing a course-correction onto Bolt, Lasseter oversaw the production of two old-school Disney Princess films, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled; the former of these did double-duty as the grand resurrection of traditional, cel-style animation, a form that had been left for dead by every major American animation studio, Disney itself having abandoned their roots after 2004's Home on the Range.

Three times makes a tradition, they say, and we are now at the third film in this chain of self-conscious throwbacks, Winnie the Pooh. Animated once again in the much out-of-favor 2-D style that at present can still be found nowhere else in mainstream American cinema, The Princess and the Frog having underwhelmed at the box office (though, blessedly, the great Japanese animators seem mostly content to use cels and cel-style animation like they have for decades), it is a sequel of sorts to the 1977 The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was itself a compilation of three already-produced short films based on several stories from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

(For ease, I'll henceforth refer to the two films as, respectively, Many Adventures and Winnie the Pooh).

Between 1977 and 2011, something terrible happened to the silly ole bear. First came the 1983 short Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore, which was a significant step down in quality from its predecessors, but still managed to be perfectly charming and engaging; and from there, things went straight to hell, as Disney decided, in its infinite wisdom, that Pooh's infantile intellectual prowess meant that he was clearly of value only to very small children, and so launched a media blitz the likes of which they have never since attempted for any of their characters, not even the arbitrarily-ubiquitous Tinker Bell. Multiple TV series, several videos, a few dodgy features made by DisneyToon Studios, and lots and lots of preschool toys, and Pooh had become tied, seemingly irrevocably, to Disney's attempts to control your children's minds from birth.

Lasseter saw this state of affairs; he did not like what he saw. And thus was Winnie the Pooh willed into existence. For the first time since 1983, the studio was going to adapt Milne's stories directly (including word-for-word, at times), , rather than cramming the author's characters into marketing-driven scenarios; the animation style was going to hew as closely as possible to the very particular aesthetic of the original shorts. Without sacrificing Pooh's new status as the Disney character of choice for the youngest members of the family, the new film was to appeal just as strongly to the older fans of Pooh and Tigger and Eeyore and all of them. In short, the film was to thread the needle of being at once a nostalgia trip and a bright new entertainment for people of literally every possible age. That it completely succeeds at this is a miracle enough; that it manages, along the way, to actually improve upon Many Adventures in some respects is nothing less than a sign of the Second Coming.

Yes! Improves upon one of the very best Disney features ever made! My words may sound heretical, but I only speak the truth. No, Winnie the Pooh is not a "better" film than its august 1977 forebear; that would just be a silly thing to claim altogether. But it is much, much closer than all but the most optimistic among us would have dared to guess.

Pulling from three Milne stories, Winnie the Pooh begins when the steady-voiced Narrator (John Cleese) observes that the perpetually hungry teddy bear of the title (Jim Cummings), the favorite toy of Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), was about to wake up on the day he was going to do something important. What this is, the Narrator will not tell us, nor Pooh, so as not to ruin the surprise; but a few possibilities present themselves. It may, on the one hand, have something to do with how the ever-gloomy donkey Eeyore (Bud Luckey) has lost his tail; and it may, on the other, be related to the terrifyingly opaque note Christopher Robin left for his animal friends: "Gon Out | Bizy | Back Soon". Unable to make any sense of this scribbling, Pooh takes it to the wisest animal he knows, the loquacious Owl (Craig Ferguson), who announces to the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood with horror that Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by a hideous, massive monster called the Backson. In short order, the rest of the friends - neurotic Piglet (Travis Oates), sensible Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez), her excitable son Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall), joylessly mature Rabbit (Tom Kenny), and of course, the indefatigable enthusiast Tigger (Cummings, pulling double duty) - make plans to catch this wicked beast, breaker of toys and destroyer of gardens, but Pooh is still committed to the only goal he's had in mind all day: to quell his constant tummy rumblings by finding a pot of honey, anywhere he can.

Two things leap to my mind, at least, when I mull over that story: the first is that, all in all, not a hell of a lot happens; not even passing the 65-minute mark, Winnie the Pooh is not just insanely short for a wide-release film in 2011, it's the shortest Disney animated feature since the 1940s. The second is that, compared to Many Adventures, the newer film has a much more protracted narrative arc. This is no accident, after all, for Many Adventures was never meant to be a single plot: it was combined from three short films, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, and the join between each of the shorts was accomplished in the brutally straightforward manner of having the narrator announce that the story was over, on to the next one. The episodic structure of that film didn't hurt it, given how the material is inherently more about the sense of one incident or moment, rather than the flow between moments. Winnie the Pooh doesn't try terribly hard to avoid being episodic, of course, and by virtue of being based on three separate Milne stories, the episodes have fairly neat beginnings and endings, but there is still the sense of everything taking place within a proscribed measure of time, and to a distinct climax. It is, in fact, like one of the three shorts, only tripled in length, and one leaves having felt like the thing was a unified whole, a sensation that is absolutely not found in watching Many Adventures.

This results in an even better side effect than mere narrative coherence, which is that, unlike its predecessor, Winnie the Pooh is really very much about Winnie the Pooh himself. The narrator of Many Adventures himself confessed, in introducing the third sequence, that it's "mostly about Tigger. But [Pooh's] in it". And as a Tigger partisan, this never bothered me much, but it is still gratifying to see a film that is, above all else, about Pooh, following one day in his life and culminating in one simple triumph he makes that day. For Pooh is a very special fictional character, and though someone might prefer Eeyore, or Owl, or Tigger, or Piglet, or whomever, those characters could never anchor their universe. They can only exist as reflections of Pooh himself.

In the Disney marketing scheme, all the toys and shirts and mugs and the like favor Tigger, Eeyore, and Pooh (one can find Piglet merchandise, but it's not as common). The implication seems to be that you can be either a Tigger person, or an Eeyore person, or a Pooh person, and this division seems reasonable enough: Tigger is unbridled enthusiasm, braggadocio, self-confidence, and bluster; Eeyore is pessimism, pragmatism, caution; Pooh represents the point in between them, mixing joy and appetite with a stiff sense that things can go to hell at any moment. But it is not reasonable at all, really: Tigger and Eeyore are both dysfunctional, polar personalities. Only Pooh Bear, with his simple happiness about everyday things, avoids the mindless mania of a Tigger or the crippling depression of an Eeyore. His is the best way through life, straightforward and down-to-earth; The Tao of Pooh is only somewhat a novelty book, after all.

By which I mean to say: what a grand thing that Pooh gets to be the star of his own movie for once. If the Hundred Acre Wood is a metaphor for all of life, and it certainly is, as far as a six-year-old British child is concerned, Pooh is our stand-in, our Everybear muddling his way through the trials and tribulations of life, and it is well to see him get his own Pilgrim's Progress, such as it is.

Winnie the Pooh, like the films before it, and like Milne's writing before that, is chiefly a story about how children understand the world; and like those, it takes this duty very seriously. Not least among the deep and abiding pleasures of the movie is how it shows that, in 2011, mainstream filmmakers are still capable of treating children and childhood with the utmost gravity and dignity. The plot specifics of Winnie the Pooh require at every point that all of the characters be, essentially, ignorant; not in the way of a stupid grown-up, played for a clown, but in the manner of the very young, who still have much to learn and much time in which to learn it. So even if Pooh frequently acts in a way that we and the narrator know to be completely wrong, we never sit in judgment of him or mock him for his idiocy; the filmmakers (a platoon of writers, led by co-directors Stephen J. Anderson, of Meet the Robinsons, and first-timer Don Hall) love Pooh, and they treat him with respect even when he gets things wrong. We laugh at him, but our laughter is indulgent, not accusatory; for we want Pooh to be wiser than he is, just as he himself wishes.

There's a resilient undertone throughout the film of words, as physical objects and as concepts and as signifiers; Winnie the Pooh is absolutely intoxicated with literacy and wordplay, despite all of the characters being borderline illiterate. That's the sort of mentality that drives the project, a fascination with things we don't understand yet - it's the "yet" that matters. Pooh is a bear of little brain, as he is the first to own, but he doesn't use that as an excuse to stop being curious.

Now, everything I've just said is true of many books and movies, and not just Winnie the Pooh itself; the extra challenge facing the 2011 movie is to be all those things while also paying tribute to the 1977 classic that has been one of the foundational texts for three generations of children. In the United States, at least, the film was advertised with a trailer that, unusually for a Disney film, used a song that wasn't written for the film, "Somewhere Only We Know" by the British indie rock group Keane, and in this song there is the line, "I'm getting old and I need something to rely on". Let us forgive Keane for their gross violation of grammar; it had to rhyme with "gone". The point is, though this line does not itself appear in the trailer, it perfectly sums up the function of Winnie the Pooh for the adults in the audience, people for whom the incredibly guileless childhood fantasies of Christopher Robin are long distant.

Winnie the Pooh isn't only a good Pooh narrative, it's a good continuation of the exact world created by Many Adventures, one that reminds us of how much we loved a different movie while also making us love the new one. It's a damnably hard line to walk, and a great many sequels have failed spectacularly to manage it; and it is not the case throughout that Winnie the Pooh does so perfectly, though it makes a more than credible effort. The challenge making something that would, as closely as possible, recreate the look and sensibility of a 34-year-old classic, while having enough personality of its own that it doesn't come across as completely ossified could not have been an easy thing to attempt.

Visually, the film is a remarkable success. The three original shorts were all made during Disney's xerography phase, and that means a lot of sketchy pencil lines; while the Pooh films are probably the best-looking of the films of this era (only One Hundred and One Dalmatians competes), they're still hobbled by the enforced cheapness of that aesthetic - which, I am aware, some people love. I am not one of them. The new film, made with the same software by Toon Boom that Disney first tried out in The Princess and the Frog is much cleaner and brighter and smoother. Almost to the point of distraction, in fact, but the clarity of the colors and shapes is very much to the new film's benefit, as is the decision to use obvious CGI effects as infrequently as possible, as infrequently as they've been used in any Disney film since the technology became available, in fact - only in one dream sequence is there a preponderance of noticeable CGI.

The character animation itself is something more of a mixed bag. The animators in the 1960s and '70s who oversaw the originals were some of the greatest practitioners of their craft ever; and though the animators working on Winnie the Pooh try very hard to mimic their work, it's not always consistent. One of the two best characters, undoubtedly, is Pooh himself, supervised by Mark Henn, who wouldn't ordinarily seem like an obvious successor to Frank Thomas, but who buries his ordinary tendencies in favor of re-creating Thomas's subtle facial expressions and movements (Henn also supervises Christopher Robin, who is certainly much more typical of the animator's work, especially in his bright, big eyes).

Thomas's Pooh

 

Henn's Pooh

The other great piece of animation is Tigger, with Andreas Deja stepping in for Milt Kahl (like Kahl, who supervised Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, Deja has had previous work with a big cat; he is responsible for Scar in The Lion King. The degree to which either Shere Khan or Scar is an appropriate precursor to Tigger can be debated); Deja doesn't try quite so hard to copy the earlier work, but makes Tigger his own without violating the essential spirit of Kahl's animation, though the character's time is limited so both he and his animator get relatively little to do.

Kahl's Tigger

 

Deja's Tigger

The other characters are somewhat less faithful to their originals, particularly Eric Goldberg's Rabbit and Dale Baer's Owl; they are neither of them untalented men, but come from a different tradition than the older generation, or even Disney mainstays Henn and Deja; Baer especially turns Owl into somewhat too modern of a comic figure, with big reactions that remind one of a TV comedy or a latter-day Don Bluth picture. It's not "bad", precisely, and I appreciate that these animators make the characters their own; but when Owl is the only character mugging like a bad comic, and Rabbit seems so weirdly slapsticky compared to everybody else, I must wonder what went wrong and where, that they mesh with the whole so poorly.

 

It's much the same story vocally: some excellent work, some that feels a bit out of place. In the former category, Cummings' work as Pooh is old hat by now - he's been the character's voice since 1988 - and while he's not quite Sterling Holloway, not that anybody could be, his take on the character is warm and right. Cleese, as the narrator, doesn't even try to sound like Sebastian Cabot, but he also doesn't try to sound like John Cleese, and his simple, friendly baritone is exactly right. Similarly, Bud Luckey (you might recall him as the sad clown in Toy Story 3) isn't trying to copy Ralph Wright's Eeyore, he's simply playing Eeyore, and the results are wonderfully dour.

On the other hand, Craig Ferguson's Owl, while a fine take on the character, sounds nothing like Hal Smith, and it takes a great deal of getting used to it; Tom Kenny's Rabbit is... best not talked about, it's too depressing. Cummings's Tigger, meanwhile, is everything his Pooh is not: he's trying and failing to imitate Paul Winchell playing the character, rather than playing the character himself, and it comes across forced and uncomfortable; he has been in charge of Tigger for a solid 20 years now, but I for one have never grown to like his approach to the character.

In fact, Tigger is on the whole not handled very well in Winnie the Pooh, outside of Deja's animation, and it's maybe a good thing that he's not in it very much. He has the same general behavior, but he's just not right; a little bit more of a braggart and less of an enthusiast, a jolly bully rather than a maddeningly cheerful force of nature. It's like the difference between Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV and the man named Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor: if you squint, it looks like the same character, but he just feels wrong somehow. Anyway, Tigger is much sidelined; other than a song where he tries to convince Eeyore that without a tail, he can become Tigger Two, the character gets little to do. It's a little reflective of the situation with Pooh merchandise, in fact, which used to be heavy on Tigger items, but in recent years has grown much more Eeyore-ey. I am uncertain if I'm happy that I know that.

The characters, that is to say, aren't exactly the character they used to be; but then, 2011 is not 1977. And in all the important ways, Winnie the Pooh is a tribute to the first film's success without being a tired retread. There is the matter of Zooey Deschanel's performance of the iconic title song: different enough to be startling at first, but then again, her voice is so lilting and immature that she makes the thing work, in spite of and because of the ways it is not the exact version we're familiar with. The rest of the new songs, by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (the former's non-kiddie musical bona fides include Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) aren't exactly hummable - but then, are most of the original songs hummable? I mean, sure I can hum "Up, Down, Touch the Ground" from the '66 short, but I can't imagine wanting to. And more importantly, the songs are light and buoyant and fit the characters well.

Best of all, though, is how Anderson and Hall remake the aesthetic that was so bold and fun in the original film, with the conceit that the characters are in a book and can interact with text. At one point, a frustrated Narrator shakes the book and even turns it upside down in an attempt to wake up a drowsy Pooh; later, the character use letters that have fallen down - but I would not want to ruin one of the movie's best surprises. This film's version of "Heffalumps and Woozles", a song about the terrible Backson, matches and betters the earlier number's phantasmagorical imagery, by taking place entirely on a chalkboard (it's the best moment, design-wise, in the film).

In fact, the film is so excited about playing with its reality that it even manages to top Many Adventures, which was already one of the most post-modern of all Disney films - though that was, itself, not a hard thing to achieve. It breaks my heart that Gopher didn't show up (he's not in the book, you know): as far as this film goes in that direction, I imagine the writers could have found something special for him to do.

It's too late to make a long story short, so let me just sum up: the 2011 Winnie the Pooh which should have just been a lazy brand name cash-in, is instead the most sincere and thoughtful kids' film that could possibly have been made at its point in history. We're supposed to be hip now, and clever and referential and everything; Winnie the Pooh is none of those. It is instead wise: wise about who children are, and who they will become. Far from being a flimsy attempt to mine past success for a quick buck, it is the sweetest and most seductive example yet of Disney's serious attempts not just to re-do what worked once, but to learn from history, to understand why their classics became classics in the first place. If Lasseter is only looking to turn the animation studio into a reflection of its former self, well, as long as the results look like this, more power to him.