It’s the latest in a long-running series of films based on the work of a beloved British author of children’s literature. It involves a close-knit group of friends on a quest. It’s coming Friday to a theater near you. But if you’re expecting 3-D wizards or boys with magical wands, you are looking in the wrong English woods, you bear of very little brain.
In perhaps the biggest David-and-Goliath matchup of the summer box office, Disney is bringing a new but decidedly retro, hand-drawn, 2-D animated “Winnie the Pooh” movie to theaters opposite Warner Bros.’ special effects-laden juggernaut, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2.”
“Pooh” is Disney’s first hand-drawn animated film since 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog,” and a relative rarity in an era dominated by computer-generated animated films like the “Toy Story” and “Shrek” series.
“Princess” — which received warm reviews but was not a box office sensation — marked a return to such films for Disney, after the studio moved away from the painstaking art form around 2004 following box-office disappointments, including “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” and “Treasure Planet.” “Pooh” is shorter and less expensive than “Princess” — it has a running time of just one hour and three minutes, and a person familiar with the matter said the budget was about $30 million.
Based on three A.A. Milne stories that originated in the 1920s, the G-rated “Winnie the Pooh” takes place over one day in the Hundred Acre Wood. Pooh is bothered because there is a rumble in his tummy and he can’t find any honey. Poor Eeyore the donkey has lost his tale and Owl has misunderstood a note Pooh has found from their beloved Christopher Robin that says “Gone out. Busy. Back soon.”
Owl believes the young boy has been captured by a beast named a “Backson.” So Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo scour the forest to find their friend.
Over the years, “Pooh” movies have made a lot of honey for Disney. The studio’s first Pooh short, 1966’s “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” was a huge success, and the 1968 short “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” won an Academy Award. That was followed by 1974’s “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.” Those three shorts were combined for a 1977 feature, “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.”
Though there have been other Pooh features, shorts and TV projects, the last three Pooh features that Disney made — 2000’s “The Tigger Movie,” 2003’s “Piglet’s Big Movie” and 2005’s “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie” — were made by the division that produces home video products. “Winnie the Pooh” is the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first journey into the Hundred Acre Wood in more than three decades.
Two years ago, John Lasseter, who is the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, had “Pooh” directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall look at vintage Disney “Pooh” shorts and movies to see if there was a way to make the bear relevant to 2011. The filmmakers quickly realized the best way was to return Pooh to his roots.
“That meant two things: To go back to the books and try to mine everything we could from them, and then go back to the Disney roots from those early films,” said Hall.
“There are all kinds of new technologies we could have used to make this movie,” added Anderson. “We could have made it in 3-D, but these characters began life beautifully in simple pen and ink illustrations in the ‘20s and then continued life as traditionally hand-drawn animation in the ‘60s and early ‘70s from Disney. So to us that is really the world they live in. That is the best way to put that charm and simplicity of the characters up on the screen.”
The directors, producer, art director and head of story went to England to visit Ashdown Forest in Sussex where A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, would play with his stuffed animals.
“We thought it would be appropriate to actually go and visit the real place that inspired Milne to write these stories where Christopher Robin used to traipse around,” said Hall. “We could have gone and looked at old Pooh backgrounds and regurgitated that. But we got to see the place and really make the film look like the place. It is a Hundred Acre Wood that is very observed.”
Hall and Anderson also enlisted the studio’s “Pooh guru,” Burny Mattinson, a 58-year veteran of Disney studios who worked in story and animation and directed “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and “The Great Mouse Detective.” Mattinson, 76, worked on the original “Pooh” featurettes in various capacities.
“The directors came up to me and asked if I would do storyboards for the different stories,” said Mattinson. “I sort of stayed on as a kibitzer during the story development process. I put my two cents in.”
Just as with the original shorts, “Winnie the Pooh” begins with live-action footage of a child’s bedroom filled with the stuffed toy versions of Pooh and his friends. The old Pooh bear featured in the opening is actually the one Mattinson’s wife made for the shorts. That old bear wasn’t used in those shorts in the 1960s and ‘70s because a craftsman on the lot ended up making another bear.
“I gave it to my kids and they played with and they gave it to their kids and it wound up in the attic,” said Mattinson. “When they were going to shoot the opening, I asked my son to drag it out of the attic. I said, ‘This is going to be our bear.’”
While young children and their parents are a prime target audience for “Pooh,” producer Peter Del Vecho said nostalgia may bring in some teens and young adults as well.
“We screened this at a lot of colleges around the country,” said Del Vecho, who also produced “The Princess and the Frog.” “We called it ‘BYOB’ — bring your own blanket — and we were turning college kids away from this movie. They were lined up for two or three hours just to get in to see the movie. So we realized there is a segment that just loves ‘Winnie the Pooh’ even at that age. That’s why we know that we have a movie that doesn’t matter what age you are.”
Because of “Pooh’s” short running time, Disney has packaged the genial, gentle, watercolor-hued film with a new traditionally animated short, “The Ballad of Nessie,” which is a fanciful take on the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. It appears before “Winnie the Pooh.”
“We are going to take down ‘Harry Potter,’ no question,” said Del Vecho, his tongue firmly in cheek.
“Obviously, we are not trying to compete with ‘Harry Potter,’” he added. “We are hoping that it gives audiences a choice. With ‘Harry Potter’ getting darker, particularly in the last one, we are trying to create fun family entertainment.”
Times staff writer Dawn Chmielewski contributed to this report.