Inspired by three stories from AA Milne’s books, Winnie the Pooh opens on July 15th, transporting the audience back to the Hundred Acre Wood to visit with the ‘bear of very little brain,’ and his friends Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Kanga, Roo and Eeyore. Done in Disney’s classic, hand-drawn art style, the movie is directed by Stephen Anderson and Don Hall, both longtime Disney artists, story editors and directors.
I spoke with Don and Stephen in Disney’s old Animation building about their new movie.
Don, how daunting is it to have your first feature be a reboot of Winnie the Pooh?
Don Hall: It wasn’t as daunting as you think because Steve and I have worked together for about 16 years now. We started on Tarzan. He was the story editor on The Emperor’s New Groove. I was the story artist on that. He directed Meet the Robinsons.
I was his head of story on that. So we’ve worked together so I was thrilled to be able to for my first foray into directing to ride along with Steve. It really added a good comfort level. It was a nice way to jump into it.
What challenges did you have on this movie?
Stephen Anderson: Overall, one of the challenges was pacing. Winnie the Pooh’s 100 Acre Wood has a certain pace, which we love. We love that it’s a nice calm conflict lite environment. You can go and be safe and there’s nothing too threatening there.
We realized early on we had to find a balance between the pace of most movies today, which we don’t want to go too far, the route of crazy quick cuts, but we also didn’t want to stick too strictly to the slower pace of the ‘60s. So that was one of the challenges we faced: how far to go one way or the other.
How hands on was John Lasseter?
Don: I thought you said, ‘How handsome is John Lasseter?’ He’s extremely handsome. (he laughs) He was pretty hands on in the beginning. We picked six stories from the Milne books we felt hadn’t been picked over and did little beat boards of them and pitched them to John, and he loved them.
As he got busier with Cars 2, we saw him a little less. But at that point I think he was confident we were on the right track.
Stephen: We kept waiting for a bad meeting. He was a champion of this. He’s so nostalgic for classic Disney, but he also wants to make it fresh for today. So he championed it from day one and every time we met with him, big smiles and big thumbs up. We kept pinching ourselves. Are we dreaming?
There are a lot of songs in this. Would you call it a musical?
Stephen: It’s a story with music, as opposed to a musical. There are moments like the honey dream where the characters are singing about what’s going on in their heads.
Don: It doesn’t follow the form of a musical. It’s like its own genre.
By including the text of the books as part of the movie—was it designed to make kids want to read?
Don: It was one of those things we remembered fondly from the old versions. When we told people we were doing Winnie the Pooh, it was a unanimous, ‘Oh you have to do this.’ It wasn’t scientific research. We just talked around the studio.
Stephen: It was unique to those (old Pooh) films. Disney hadn’t used that kind of device in their animation at that point. The first thing that came into my head was Pooh standing on a block of text. As we made the movie, we put more of those in it. Then we hatched on the notion the (letters) could actually save the day.
Can you talk about casting Craig Ferguson as the voice of Owl?
Stephen: We knew for some of the characters, they had to have imitations of the original because they just define those characters: Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore. But then with some of the other characters they’re not so tied to the voice so if you changed the voice, people would not be upset with it. If you changed the personality, yes, that would be a problem.
So Rabbit and Owl were two in particular we thought we could change things up. We were just trying to find people who were funny and could do improvisation. It just seemed like a funny idea to take Craig Ferguson’s persona and put him into that character for Owl and see what happens.
What about John Cleese as the Narrator?
Don: That was another we asked our producer if he could make it happen. We got to fly to London and meet him. It was probably the most nerve-wracking thing on the film because we both hold him in such high regard.
What if he hates it? What if he hates our pages? And of course that all went away when we met him. We showed him some footage and he was laughing at it. That was a dream come true.
Stephen: It was an honor for us to have John Cleese entertained by something we’d created.
How do you think today’s 3D kids will like Winnie the Pooh?
Don: I have a seven year old and a four year old. They make no distinction between the two mediums (2D and 3D). To them, it’s just animation and it’s either entertaining or it’s not. Personally, I think adults make more out of this 2D-3D thing than kids do. The kids just want to sit down and be entertained.