I feel as though I have been neglecting the films of the “Dark Ages”. This is in large part because there seems to be so very little information about these films out there, except for those films that Walt had a hand in before he died. Today’s featured piece of concept art comes from one of those films, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Walt had actually been working on making an animated adaptation of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books since the 1940s, and the first segment of the film Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree was released as a featurette while he was alive. This piece of concept art by an unknown studio artist comes from that segment, and depicts the live-action prologue with its twist on the classic Disney storybook opening. It highlights one of my favorite aspects of the film, the character’s almost meta awareness that they are characters in a classic children’s’ book.
It was not until the 1960s, after two decades of trying, that Walt Disney was able to acquire both adaptation and merchandising rights for the Winnie-the-Pooh . By that time Walt Disney was starting to have some doubts over the stories’s potential to be a successful animated feature. Disney had suffered several flops over the course of his career, and some of his least successful and most criticized films were those based on classic children’s books. In particular, Alice in Wonderland was heavily scrutinized by devotees of Lewis Carroll’s books. British Pooh fans were just as big of purists as Alice fans, while American’s were not nearly as familiar with the characters as children in Europe were and so Walt started to worry about the film finding and pleasing an audience. To top it off, the Pooh stories, while having fantastic characters, lacked many of the plot elements generally found in his most successful features. There was very little drama, no romance, and no villain. For these reasons, Walt decided to make two very important decisions regarding the film. First, it was to be released as a series of episodic featurettes, to introduce american audiences to the characters and make up for the stories dramatic plot deficiencies. Second, it would be directed by animator Woolie Reitherman who was not a particular fan of the books, as he was best equipped to solve the problem of pleasing British audiences while still making a recognizably Disney product.
Reitherman’s solution was for the film to never lose sight of the fact that the characters were from a series of children’s books. This lead to the use of the storybook opening in the nursery as a framing device, as seen in this concept art, as well as the idea of having a narrator who read from the occasionally visible pages of the book. Even the characters were made aware of their existence inside a book and occasionally interacted with the physical text itself. Design wise, there were thoughts of closely following the original illustrations of Ernest H. Shepard. but the illustrations proved too difficult to animate. Still, the animators stuck closely to Shepherd’s stuffed toy designs, with button eyes and mitten-like hands, while making the characters a bit softer and more expressive. The backgrounds also took inspiration from Shepard’s illustration in their design. They were painted in simple water colours, with bold ink lines that mimicked the cross-hatched shading of the original illustrations. While the films’ art style took heavy inspiration from the original books, Reitherman wanted to be sure not to make the film seem too stuffy and British. He wanted to attract American audiences so they would watch future Pooh films. He did this by adding broad humor and gags into the story, and by creating a new character for American audiences to embrace, the folksy American Gopher. Yet, even the creation of Gopher was done with a clear awareness of his presence as an interloper, as both Gopher and Pooh discuss how he is “not in the book.” It is this same humorous awareness of it’s awkward position as an American animated adaptation of a revered British classic that, to me ,makes the film so enjoyable to watch .
In the end, the first short based on the Pooh stories, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree was quite well received on both sides of the pond, and the featurettes that followed were even more successful. Eventually, they were compiled like chapters in a book into the full length The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh which is now nearly as beloved and revered by audiences as the original books.
Image Credit: The Walt Disney Film Archives. The Animated Movies 1921–1968