I had no idea that there was a new animated short attached to “Winnie the Pooh” before I walked into the theater, and I assume most of America didn’t know either. Imagine my delighted surprise when “The Ballad of Nessie” unfolded before me on the screen. Theatrical shorts are few and far between these days, with only Pixar consistently interested in producing this neglected cinematic form. Disney used to dominate the world of animated shorts but hasn’t produced them with any degree of regularity in decades. It’s a special treat to see a new one, especially attached to a film featuring Winnie the Pooh, a bear whose first appearance on screen was in the form of theatrical featurettes in the late 1960s.
Unfortunately, “The Ballad of Nessie” is little more than a mediocre trip down memory lane. With its storybook format, the participation of an (admittedly charming) narrator and attractive but uncreative animation, the short implies the golden age of Disney animation more than recreates it. “Winnie the Pooh” itself has this same problem but pushes its style just a bit beyond the classics in order to stay fresh and entertaining. “Nessie” has none of that light ingenuity but rather stays slight, nostalgic and uninteresting.
Why did they even make it? Well, the obvious answer is that even with the short added to the running time “Winnie the Pooh” isn’t even a full 70 minutes. However, there’s also a prevailing nostalgia in the few shorts Disney has produced in the last decade or so that leads one to believe that this behemoth of American animation is giving its all to hearken back to the good old days. “Steamboat Willie” is now featured in the opening credits of their theatrical releases. The last short they produced to play in commercial cinemas, 2007’s “How to Hook Up Your Home Theater,” is in essence a bland remake of old Goofy shorts such as the Oscar-nominated “Aquamania.” Disney seems desperate to recreate their classic success, occasionally using imitation and emulation over ingenuity as their central strategy.
Admittedly, Disney has an awful lot for which to be nostalgic. In the “Golden Age of Animation” the studio picked up twelve Academy Awards, eight of which were won consecutively. The reason for this is that back in the 1930s and ‘40s, Walt Disney approached the animated short as Pixar does now: as a proving ground for new animation techniques and ideas for their films as a whole. The younger studio, after all, began with short film and still consistently uses them to push forward their stylistic ambitions. It’s been twenty-five years since “Luxo Jr.,” and they’re still releasing exciting new films like “Day & Night.”
Disney’s new interest for the form is still certainly appreciated, and I wouldn’t advocate that they just throw in the towel. Yet it’s a bit disappointing to go see “Winnie the Pooh” and find oneself greeted by “Nessie” and its five minutes of uninspired nostalgia. The early Pooh featurettes are practically a symbol of Disney’s distant brilliance – “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” won Walt his last (and posthumous) Oscar and has certainly outlasted the long-forgotten Dean Jones comedy it was attached to at the time. What I would love to see is the kind of ingenuity that characterized the early days of the studio, exciting experimentation with the art of animation.
To conclude, here’s a magnificent example of that wild creativity. 1937 Oscar-winner “The Old Mill” was the first animated film to use Disney’s multiplane camera in preparation for "Snow White" the following year. It creates a three-dimensional effect, taking us through a dark storm into the cavernous hollow of an aging windmill. The animation is so stunning that there's little need for even the simplest of narrative arcs as we get swept up in the rainy tumult. It's still quite impressive to watch, especially if you’ve seen any of the older and flatter shorts. Check it out: