An entire series of movies focused on side characters from the Winnie the Pooh universe sounds an awful lot like the Walt Disney Company mindlessly squeezing money out of anything it can manage to. And it only sounds that way because it is exactly that. Even so Piglet's Big Movie, the second of these Pooh spin-offs, released theatrically in the spring of 2003, is actually a surprisingly fine little movie. It's not necessarily all that true to the characters, but it's charming and gentle in a way that The Tigger Movie, three years earlier, was not. This certainly has a great deal to with the fact that much of its story was taken from the writings of A.A. Milne himself, the only Disney pooh project between the 1983 short Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore and the 2011 Winnie the Pooh to have absolutely any basis in the nominal source material whatsoever. It probably also has something to do with how there's not really a narrative to speak of: where The Tigger Movie was rather over-reachingly about the title character's crisis of identity, Piglet's Big Movie merely has the other animals think they've lost Piglet (John Fiedler), and go hunting for him over an afternoon, but he's been perfectly fine the whole time, and the whole thing is really more a framework for several short narratives adapting chapters from the prose Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, although changing them up to make Piglet's role more substantial, and thereby justify the marketing hook. I mean, the title.

The nominal organizing plot is that Piglet is sick and tired of being ignored for his tiny stature, as established in an opening honey-hunting sequence that requires Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) to act quite out of character. So he - Piglet, I mean - goes off into the wild to find some good deed to do, and prove that very small animals can also be very useful. Having already decreed the movie "fine", I suppose I can start in with the quibbling and nitpicking right off; this really isn't how Piglet behaves, is it? Admittedly, it's been years since my last exposure to The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the television cartoon that was the ultimate source for most of Disney's Pooh fandom in the '90s and '00s, and maybe his characterisation was different there. But the Piglet of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and to a lesser extent the Piglet of Milne, is a neurotic, fearful sort, far more inclined to be grateful that his diminutive size keeps anything threatening from noticing him, than to resent being passed over to take part in potentially dangerous bee-distracting operations. Still and all, it's not as robust a piece of character assassination as happened in The Tigger Movie, which to a very strong, noticeable degree was a film predicated on Tigger acting in diametrically opposed ways to everything that has been established about him. Piglet's Big Movie just seems to take place on day when Piglet was in an off mood.

The point being, Piglet is gone, and the others - Pooh, Tigger (Cummings), Rabbit (Ken Sansom) Eeyore (Peter Cullen), Roo (Nikita Hopkins), and Kanga (Kath Soucie) - try to find him by using his scrapbook as a guide to where he might be headed; this mostly means that they look in the scrapbook, say variations on "hey, remember that time...?" and have a ten-minute sequence where they recall an adventure that, oh-so-coincidentally, showcases Piglet in an especially brave, confident, and able light. As mentioned, these sequences are all in some way taken from Milne, though not without distortion, and that helps matters a lot; the dignity and gravity of Milne's nonsensical stories about childhood cannot be replicated very easily, and while Piglet's Big Movie is certainly the most trivial of all Disney's projects taken directly from that author, it is also better than any of the Pooh stories invented by Disney's own people. It's also possibly that the mere fact of being episodic helps: commenting on my review of The Tigger Movie, reader Sssonic astutely pointed out that Pooh is not, inherently, well-suited for long-form narrative, and Piglet's Big Movie dodges that problem altogether, as future Pooh features would not. But we should not spoil things ahead of time.

By all means, the film has problems, many of them starting with Carly Simon, who wrote and performed the film's cluster of original songs. I am no reflexive hater of Carly Simon, mind you - "Nobody Does it Better" is a fucking good song. But the things she does in Piglet's Big Movie are harmless at best (setting Milne's nonsense poems to notably anachronistic tunes), and contemptible at worst (her '80s-jazz update to the Sherman brothers' "Winnie the Pooh" theme, or the nightmarish arrhythmia of "With a Few Good Friends", a montage number that includes such unpronounceable monstrosities as "With a few good friends / And a stick or two / A house is built at a corner called Pooh"). On the level of performance, Cummings's Tigger and Cullen's Eeyore are both at a low ebb here, and Fiedler, bless him, sounded every bit of his 70-some years, a bit more shrill than the beloved Piglet of yore. And though I am certainly fond of the stories individually, the way they are stitched together by sole credited screenwriter Brian Hohlfeld (though let's be honest, no Disney release in 2003 had just one writer) leaves an awful lot to be desired, given how rickety and arbitrary the framework is.

(And that's without mentioning the continuity error: Kanga and Roo moving into the Hundred Acre Wood after Tigger already lived there? Oh, come now, surely you think better of us than that, Hohlfeld. Also, I am one of the half-dozen or so people now alive bothered enough by Disney's internal Winnie the Pooh chronology that this does, in fact, strike me as a real problem).

Still, it's as good as anything else that Disney had done with this brand name in quite a long time, a rare Eisner-era Pooh project that you can appreciate without having to scrunch up your face and take a deep breath and augment your head into that "oh, well, it's really just for kids..." mentality. Of course, it is for kids, but unlike the miserable Pooh's Grand Adventure, or the aggressively simple-minded series My Friends Tigger & Pooh, there's an actual way in for grown-up viewers who can appreciate the film's Milne-derived delicacy in depicting the daft logic of childhood playtime. It is a sweet little movie - insubstantial as all hell, and sweet.

It's also, all things considered, rather well-animated. And "all things considered" does mean, yes, that we have to make allowances for this being DisneyToon and all. But as I have argued previously the Winnie the Pooh characters seem to survive the low budget television treatment better than most, perhaps because they are at heart simple line drawings. Whatever the case, Piglet's Big Movie is the best-looking Pooh film made by the Disney television studios up to that point, both on the level of basic visual richness - the backgrounds are unusually well-drawn and lovely - and in terms of animation as well. Comparing it directly to The Tigger Movie, it's shocking how much better the bouncy tiger looks here, with nuances to his expression that feel much closer to the vintage Tigger than whatever the hell was going on in that last movie. They even got his pencil-shaded stripes right!

The trade-off being, sadly, that Piglet himself looks kind of awful at times, given to deeply emotive, complex facial expressions that are a disastrously bad fit for the extreme simplicity of his design (two black dotes and a rose patch where his nose should be), making him look faintly ugly and not at all like any other iteration of the character. This is not a one-off problem; almost every time we see Piglet, he looks sort of dreadful and much too flexible. Thankfully, he is the one and only character for whom this is the case, and despite the film boasting his name, he's not actually in it all that much more often than anybody else.

I also can't let the film's visuals go by without mentioning a really strange trend that lasts through the whole thing: Piglet's Big Movie is weirdly obsessed with dunking its characters in water, and drawing them with unexpectedly detailed sopping wet fur. Bear in mind that these are all magical plush toys, who presumably do not have fur, at least not the way we see it here.

The worst offender, undoubtedly, is Roo. It's a weird thing about anthropomorphic cartoon animals: if they're just wandering around naked, you never ever thing about it, but if they're a character traditionally shown wearing some kind of minimal clothing, and then you see them out of it, it seems like some kind of horrendous pornographic fanart.

Lord knows what that was about, but a lot of the production was done in Japan, if that helps.

Back on target: Piglet's Big Movie is certainly not vintage Pooh, but it is something that not a single one of the DisneyToon features we've looked at so far managed to be: entirely successful at a limited goal of entertaining children and forgiving grown-ups. It is the first and so far only Disney sequel that stands on its own two feet as a movie and manages to be relatively cute, meaningful, and well-made on its own, good enough that if I had a five-year-old who wanted to watch it, I would make no effort to discourage them. That's not something I'd say about Pooh's Grand Adventure in a hundred years. And while I am persistently sad at Disney's insistence on making the Pooh properties strictly for little ones for so many years, if it has to be the case that they're only aiming for an audience of young children, it's certainly better that it reaches that goal with such grace and charm as this one managed.