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Review: 'Winnie the Pooh' delights on every level

July 13th, 2011 1:43 pm by Associated Press

Winnie the Pooh tends to amble unhurriedly through his days, enjoying his life and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood at his own pace. But "Winnie the Pooh," the movie, couldn't have come along at a better time.

It is the ideal alternative to all those big, shiny, effects-laden spectacles that tend to dominate during the summer — animated or otherwise. It's not jammed with computer-generated trickery and, mercifully, it doesn't pop out at you in 3-D.

This is just 68 minutes of pure, hunny-covered satisfaction.

Given the source material — A.A. Milne's enduring writing for children — "Winnie the Pooh" is naturally geared toward the little ones, with its cuddly characters and pleasingly soft watercolor strokes, but not at the expense of adults' enjoyment. Quite the contrary: Grown-ups may find themselves even more engaged by it and perhaps even moved to tears.

"Winnie the Pooh" is hilariously funny, though; there's a great goofiness about it, an earnestness to the adventures of Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and pals that results in abject zaniness. Nobody here is nearly as smart or as competent as they pretend to be, but they mean well, and that makes us not just care about them but actively root for them.

At the same time, it offers an irresistibly sweet tug of nostalgia, of childhood memories and simpler times. The live-action opening sequence features stuffed-animal versions of all those beloved characters basking in the peaceful sunlight of a little boy's bedroom — Christopher Robin's bedroom, to be exact — reinforcing the fact that these stories spring from a child's imagination.

That it works so well on both levels at once is a testament to the clarity of vision at work. Directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall return not only to hand-drawn animation but also to some of the narrative structure of the original "Pooh" films. They invite us in by breaking the fourth wall and reminding us that the source material is literary. Characters leap from one page to the next; they frolic atop sentences and find letters tumbling down all around them.

Later, as Owl spins an increasingly frantic tale about a mysterious monster in the woods, his crude chalkboard drawings spring to life in an entirely different kind of animation. The beauty of this aesthetic is that it's simultaneously elaborate and imperfect. The multicolored chalk lines are a bit messy; you can almost see dust flying off the screen.

In this musical scene, as in so many of the film's numbers, the lively tunes and clever lyrics create a delirious energy. You can't help but be swept away. Just to give you a clue as to the tone we're talking about, they're the work of Robert Lopez — a Tony Award winner for "Avenue Q" and "The Book of Mormon" — and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Again, this is one of the ways in which "Winnie the Pooh" works on multiple levels: Kids will enjoy the fun of the music, while adults will be laughing out loud at the rapid-fire words the animals are singing.

Pooh (voiced lovingly by Jim Cummings) wakes up one morning and finds, totally unsurprisingly, that he has a rumbly in his tumbly. While hunting for honey, he gets sidetracked by a contest to find a new tail for the sad-sack Eeyore (a deadpan, scene-stealing Bud Luckey). But a series of misunderstandings and some shoddy reading skills on the part of the arrogant Owl (a terrific Craig Ferguson) lead the whole group - including Tigger (Cummings again), Piglet (Travis Oates) and Rabbit (Tom Kenny of "SpongeBob SquarePants") — to believe that a hideous, fearsome creature has kidnapped Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter).

From here they devise one crazy, mixed-up scheme after another to track down and rescue their human pal. Yes, each character exists in his or her own reliable, one-joke bubble — Owl is always preening, Piglet is always fearful, Tigger is always hyper - but they all get a moment to shine. Still, these guys are at their best when they're at their worst, including a "Who's on First?"-style misunderstanding that's a major highlight.

Here's something that is certain: This is the perfect first movie to take your kids to see in a theater.

"Winnie the Pooh," a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated G. Running time: 68 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

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