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Thursday Treasures

July 14, 2011 by Kelvin Cedeno

The Hundred Acre Wood. Those four words conjure up a myriad of images and emotions for many people. They represent everything from honey trees and blustery days to bouncings and a game of Poohsticks. Most importantly, though, the Hundred Acre Wood stands for imagination and the once endless summer days of childhood. With a world filled with such memorable and relatable residents, it comes as no surprise that Disney has treated Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his friends similarly to Mickey and the gang, constantly reinventing them for newer generations. While Pooh is best known for his film career, his television one has just as interesting a history.

Some may be surprised to know that the first Winnie the Pooh series wasnt animated but, in fact, live-action. The Disney Channel series Welcome to Pooh Corner made its debut in 1983, the same time as the network itself. Similar to what is now becoming a staple of Disney park shows, the program portrayed all of its characters via actors in costumes with animatronic heads. To keep the show reminiscent of the storybook look of the original animated shorts, the sets were actually still watercolor backgrounds added through post-production. Only the most minimal and necessary of physical props were implemented.

This was perhaps the first time Disney began to see Pooh as a learning tool for preschoolers. Most of the shows 120 episodes (124 if you include the educational specials) had a particular lesson for the week such as sharing or facing your fears. It admittedly gave the program a different vibe from the whimsy and wit from the original shorts and the A.A. Milne books that inspired them.

Still, there remained connections between both the animated shorts and Welcome to Pooh Corner. For one, the Sherman Brothers penned several songs for the series, most notably a reworking of their original Winnie the Pooh theme with new lyrics. Of the voice actors, only Hal Smith returned for the voice of Owl (and Pooh for the first time). Unlike other Hundred Acre Wood incarnations, this one was the first and only time we got to see the ever omnipresent narrator (played here by Laurie Main). Main had previously narrated Disneylands read-along records for the three Winnie the Pooh stories in the 1970s as well as the 1983 short Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore. Main would later reprise his role briefly for a Kelloggs commercial (which our very own Reuben Gutierrez has covered elsewhere on this site) as well as the direct-to-video Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving in 1999. His voice may just be as synonymous with this world as Sebastian Cabots is.

While the series would remain in syndication well into 1997, production ended in 1986. It was then that Disney decided to bring Pooh back to his natural medium of hand-drawn animation. Thus came The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh to ABC in 1988. Arguably just as resonant to children of the late 80s/early 90s as the original shorts, the series abandoned Pooh Corners regularly-scheduled morality lessons for some good old fashioned adventure. New environments and characters were introduced, most notably the bluebird Kessie whom Rabbit becomes a surrogate parent towards. Genuine antagonists were even brought in on occasion such as Heff the Heffalump, who (like the other Heffalumps and Woozles in this series) was in fact real and not imaginary as the creatures were in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. This was also the only series in which Christopher Robin played a decent-sized role as we got to see his daily life outside of the Hundred Acre Wood on occasion.

However, New Adventures became instrumental to the Pooh franchise for one major reason: it was here that the new generation of voice actors for the gang would be born. While Paul Winchell and Hal Smith would reprise their roles as Tigger and Owl, respectively, until their retirements, go-to Disney voice actor Jim Cummings would become Winnie the Pooh for the next 23 years (and would later take over for Winchell from season three onward). The same goes for the majority of the cast members up until the Walt Disney Animation Studios Winnie the Pooh reboot in 2011.

The series did mark the departure of the narrator as well as the storybook motif, and while the antics were decidedly a bit more daring, the spirit of the universe and its residents remained intact throughout the 64 episodes (and several holiday specials by the same team, most famously Winnie the Pooh and Christmas, Too which still airs annually on ABCFamily). Despite production ending in 1991, New Adventures would continue to air in syndication on ABC, the Disney Channel, and Toon Disney for years to come.

With the new millennium came another interpretation of Milnes world via The Book of Pooh in 2001. The most striking thing about the show was that it presented another live-action vision, but this time with puppets rather than costumed actors. Based on bunraku, a Japanese style of puppetry, the series visual aesthetic was certainly unique. The storybook motif returned via CG backgrounds designed to look like pages from a pop-up book, and with this came a new narrator by way of voice veteran Jeff Bennett.

Tontally, the series sat somewhere inbetween Pooh Corner and New Adventures. The weekly lessons aimed at preschoolers from the former reappeared, but so did the voice actors from the latter. Unlike New Adventures, the show remained in the Hundred Acre Wood and rarely, if ever, veered outside Milnes cast of characters save for Kessie. Christopher Robin himself wasnt featured, likely because a puppet version of him wouldnt make as much sense. A live-action version of him is seen and heard briefly, though, in the opening theme before the book opens and segue ways into the pop up puppetry. While the Playhouse Disney program ran for 2 years, it didnt seem to click with audiences the way Disney might have hoped.

That didnt dissuade Disney from attempting another reincarnation of their beloved franchise for their Playhouse Disney network. Encouraged the success of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (which reinvented Mickey and the gang for a new generation), the television division decided to give Pooh and friends similar treatment. In 2007, the Hundred Acre Wood and its residents were rendered in computer-generated imagery for the first time outside of video games. The show, titled My Friends Tigger and Pooh, presented perhaps the most wild deviation from Milnes world seen yet.

In this version, Pooh and Tigger were self-proclaimed Super Sleuths, a sort of superhero detective mix, who solved cases and rescued their friends on a weekly basis. The duo were given new costumes to reflect this, but perhaps the most shocking change was the replacement of Christopher Robin with an American girl named Darby (voiced by rising child actress Chloe Moretz).  She aided our titular friends with their missions, though it was never clear whether this was all really happening or whether these were a part of her imagination as they were with Christopher (who would incidentally make a couple of cameo appearances).

Possibly because he was the one the characters constantly went to for help, the character of Owl was completely dropped, and a few minor characters like Turtle (voiced by none other than Mark Hamill) were added. The program was the first Pooh series to bring in the character of Lumpy, who was introduced to audiences in the 2005 feature Poohs Heffalump Movie. It also marked the debut of Travis Oates as Piglet following John Fiedlers death in 2005. The 64-episode series, along with two direct-to-video films, wrapped up in 2010, catching more of an audience than The Book of Pooh did, but still not up to Disneys expectations.

For the moment, Disney has decided to bring Pooh back to his roots both cinematically and tonally. With the release of Winnie the Pooh in theaters, Pooh not only is back on the silver screen where he first emerged in 1966, but his source of inspiration has gone back to his creator, A.A. Milne. Each Pooh television series has had varying degrees of success, but all have managed to keep this world alive decade after decade. Each sparks our imagination in different manner while teaching us both about our world and ourselves. Whether its on the page, the big screen, or the small screen, the legacy of the Hundred Acre Wood promises to remain with us for years to come, and no amount of stuff and fluff can make us forget it.



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