Bedtime stories with his daughters were Walt Disney’s first inspiration for bringing Winnie the Pooh to movie screens. He had memories of his wife, Lillian reading the Winnie the Pooh stories to their daughters, Diane and Sharon.
This was one of the significant reasons Walt and his artists brought the stories to life in animation. Winnie the Pooh and the “Hundred Acre Wood” residents first appeared in the 1924 book, When We Were Young, written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E.H. Shepard. This was all very personal to the author, based on his son, Christopher Robin, and how he would play with his stuffed animal “friends.”
The stories were extremely popular, and Pooh and the other characters quickly became beloved.
In 1961, Walt Disney secured the rights to the A.A. Milne stories. Initially planned as a feature-length animated film, the production then changed to a short “featurette” film that would play with one of the studio’s live-action films. Walt felt that with Winnie the Pooh stories not as well-known in the States as they were in the United Kingdom, a featurette would assist with building an audience.
That first featurette was Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966, followed by 1968’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film) and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974).
In 1977, however, the original vision for a feature film would come to fruition when these featurettes were put together, and new animation was produced to “connect” them, along with a new conclusion. It was all “re-packaged” as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
The film, which debuted forty-five years ago, opens, just as the shorts had, with live-action shots of the bedroom of Christopher Robin. Illustrations come to animated life as we are taken inside a storybook, and the Sherman brothers’ iconic “Winnie the Pooh” theme song greets us.
This introduces Pooh, Christopher Robin, and the other familiar friends, such as Piglet, Rabbit, Eyeore, Kanga, Roo, and Owl.
The pages take us to the first story, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, during which Pooh’s “ever-growing” love of honey finds him expanding to a size, where he becomes lodged in the entrance of Rabbit’s house.
From this tale, pages turn to Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, which takes place on a very windy day, or “Winds-day.” It’s on this stormy day and night that Pooh meets the hyperactive hopper Tigger (who would quickly become an audience favorite), and the bear also dreams about “Heffalumps and Woozles.”
The last story is Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, where Rabbit attempts to get Tigger to stop bouncing. This segment is filled with a beautiful moment of character animation, from Disney Legend Milt Kahl, where Tigger, promising he won’t bounce anymore, must stop himself from an enthusiastic bounce, slumps his shoulders, and walks off into the woods.
Kahl and several of Walt’s famed “Nine Old Men” of his animation team worked on the Winnie the Pooh short films and brought personalities and emotions to each character. Pooh’s childlike wonder and questioning, Rabbit’s officious nature, and Owl’s cluelessness while telling stories are just three wonderful examples.
Helping to bring the characters to life was a cast of character actors whose voices have become now so closely aligned with these cherished members of Pooh corner. Disney favorite Sterling Holloway as Winnie the Pooh, John Fiedler as Piglet, Paul Winchell as Tigger, Barbara Luddy as Kanga, and Sebastian Cabot as the narrator, are just some.
Additionally, the Disney studio utilized unique backgrounds that looked less like the full artistry seen in other features and more like a storybook illustration. At times, the characters interact with text on a page. This provided a nice connection to Milne’s source material.
Even with all this thoughtfulness, there were still controversies when the Disney studio first adapted the Winnie the Pooh stories. The biggest of these was how “Americanized” Milne’s treasured stories were, with a primarily American voice cast and the introduction of a new character, who didn’t appear in the book, named Gopher (voiced by comedian Howard Morris).
There has been ubiquitous merchandise, including everything from stuffed animals to T-shirts and storybooks (which, at one point, had sales that outperformed Mickey Mouse products). Additionally, Disney has featured Pooh and the characters in several other feature films, including 2011’s Winnie-the-Pooh and 2018’s live-action Christopher Robin, as well as TV shows and appearance in attractions, parades and shows at their theme parks.
While introduced by Milne almost a century ago, and so closely and personally connected with the author, Pooh Bear, Piglet, Tigger, and the rest of the gang are also a large part of the Disney “family” of characters.
Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh may indeed be a compilation of previously released shorts, but the film has become so much more for so many through the years.
Like Milne’s connection to his son, when creating the stories, and Walt’s connection to his daughters, when reading the stories, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh celebrates the precious and wondrous years of childhood.
For more about Disney’s Winnie The Pooh, check out Greg Ehrbar’s columns about Winnie’s recording career.