By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood July 17, 2011 at 8:11AM
It's curiouser and curiouser. Why would Disney put poor old Winnie the Pooh up against the mightiest franchise finale ever? New TOH columnist Bill Desowitz, who covers the inside workings of animation, visual effects and below-the-line filmmaking in Hollywood at his new blog Immersed in Movies, talks to the Disney animators behind this old-fashioned hand-drawn Pooh, which opened, despite rave reviews, in sixth place this weekend. Judging from its A- Cinemascore, strong WOM should bring more audiences to the picture in coming weeks:
Oh, bother. What were they thinking at Disney, pitting the animated gang from the Hundred-Acre Wood against Harry's final confrontation with Voldemort this weekend?
It's counter-programming of a curious kind because the studio and the filmmakers are determined to prove that Winnie the Pooh isn't just for kids, with its dysfunctional ensemble, its penchant for going off on tangents, and its self-reflexive interplay between narrator and characters (sentences even fly off the page with a will of their own).
In fact, Disney test marketed Pooh at USC and supposedly had to turn away students that stood on line for five hours. Granted, it's an industry training ground, but directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall were still encouraged. "Getting a free screening and getting them to pay money is a whole other thing, but it certainly gives us confidence that we've created a broad audience movie," Anderson says.
But there's a lot riding on Pooh: it's not only the first big-screen animated feature showcasing A.A. Milne's beloved characters produced by Disney's hand-drawn dream team, but also the first 2D project since the underperforming Princess and the Frog in 2009.
Yet Pooh is Disney's second most popular character after Mickey Mouse, and so the studio thought it was time to rehabilitate the franchise after watering it down for cable and DVD projects.
The idea was to go back to the source and rediscover the simplicity and wit of the original Disney shorts from the '60s (Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day won the Oscar for best animated short in 1968). And to also let a new generation of hand-drawn animators freshen it up with more slapstick humor.
According to the directors and animators, it was an inspiration visiting the London locales that inspired Milne, especially Ashdown Forest, where he wrote the books. "We were trying to get that real place reflected in the movie, with the soft English light," suggests Hall.
Veteran Eric Goldberg (Aladdin), who supervised the persnickety Rabbit by channeling Richard Nixon, says it was like putting on an old shirt. "There's warmth to hand-drawn. I don't think its [going out of style] has anything to do with the medium or people enjoying it. There are great CG films and there can be great hand-drawn films. I think it's more along the lines of what people think audiences want. We thought Princess and the Frog was going to make or break the success of hand-drawn. At the end of the day, the film did make money. But people forget in this let's-get-a-quick-return world that animation has a huge shelf life -- it can last for decades. Live action dates more quickly and easily than animation."
Hall concurs that this wasn't anything like the pressure of Frog, where he served as head of story. "This was playtime; we were happy just to entertain."
However, even though there are currently no other 2D-animated features in production at Disney, Goldberg is confident that a project will be greenlit soon, most likely by the Frog directing team of John Musker and Ron Clements. But it will not be Mort, an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's book about the Grim Reaper's apprentice, which ran into an unexpected rights issue.
"I think our vision for the studio is to be as ambidextrous as we can," says Anderson. So much so that Disney animators have been conducting side-by-side tests to study how hand-drawn can improve CG artistry, a carryover from the Tangled production.
Who knows? Pooh may well turn out to be the 2D poster child that the traditionalists have sought.