A Bear of Very Little Brain but a Lot of Heart

When the weather outside is frightful, I’m more willing than usual to bend the rules. While we normally don’t allow Sprout to watch videos – I’d just rather him be outside, looking at a book, or engaging in creative play – I actually suggested an exception a week and a half ago. It was freezing rain, there was a winter storm advisory and there wasn’t anything better in the world to do but snuggle on the couch and watch a movie. So that’s precisely what we did, turning on 1977’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

We picked that particular movie after a rather strange exploration of the Netflix app’s children’s section. Of course, I fully expected there to be a number of inane films, such as Peabody and Mr. Sherman and Cars’ Tall Tales. Then there were a bunch of children’s films that are excellent, but still too old for a toddler, like The Lion King and Spirited Away. What surprised me was how many obviously adult – many R-rated – films were showing up, from Top Gun to Barbarella to Annie Hall. Also, the fact that “Crime TV Shows” is a category in “Kids” at all. I don’t know if someone is screwing with the Netflix algorithm or what, but don’t trust that section to be accurate!

I hadn’t seen this particular version of Winnie the Pooh since I was little, but I’ve had a lifelong fondness for the stories. My mom nicknamed my dad Pooh Bear in college and have a number of Pooh Bear Christmas ornaments. They sang me Loggins and Messina’s House at Pooh Corner as a child and now I sing it to Sprout in both the most joyful and desperate hours. Sprout also has a plaque with the famous quote from Christopher Robin to Pooh about believing in yourself that my mother-in-law originally gave my husband. Needless to say, I was looking forward to sharing these beloved characters with him.

Sprout thought it was fantastic. He laughed multiple times, mostly at appropriate moments. He giggled at Pooh falling out of a tree and spitting out bees in his hapless attempt to steal honey. He also laughed at the part where Rabbit starts hallucinating because he’s terribly lost in the woods, but I told him it wasn’t appropriate to laugh at someone being scared. He probably just thought the imagery was weird, but I don’t want to reinforce that reaction.

Besides what he laughed at, how he laughed was particularly striking. It was a tinny, almost stilted laugh that was different from his usual one. Chris pointed out that this was one of the few occasions he’s had to laugh “at” something rather than “with” someone. Usually when he’s laughing, it’s because we’re tickling him or doing something funny together. It was odd to see how much his laugh varied depending on the situation.

Sprout wasn’t the only one laughing though – both Chris and I enjoyed it quite a bit. While I remembered bits and pieces from before, there were a number of things I had forgotten:

1) How hallucinatory it is: Besides the sequence with Rabbit, there’s also a very trippy part where Pooh imagines Woozles and Heffalumps taunting him. It’s obviously influenced by Fantasia, with multi-colored dancing, spacey elephants and lithe, morphing weasels. For some reason, it also reminded me of the dream sequence in the Big Lebowski, but maybe that’s just because I love that movie. Jeff Bridges would make a very interesting Pooh Bear though.

2) How many jokes for adults there are: It’s easy to think that having jokes for adults in children’s movies was invented by Pixar and Dreamworks, but Winnie the Pooh had its share of them, most adopted straight from the original stories. From the fact that Pooh Bear quite literally “lives under the name of Sanders” with the sign “Mr Sanders” above his house to Owl clearly being based on some boring Cambridge don, there are a wealth of jokes only adults will get.

3) How deeply annoying Tigger is and how other characters react: Tigger is straight-up obnoxious. He bounces in with no warning, yells at other characters, often destroys their stuff, and abruptly leaves, never with any apologies. Now, many children’s characters could be described as “deeply annoying,” but what’s fascinating about Winnie the Pooh is how they explicitly acknowledge that within the text. Tigger’s behavior absolutely pisses off Rabbit and even frustrates ever-patient, kind Piglet. It’s so bad that in a secret community meeting, Rabbit convinces Piglet to help him lose Tigger in the woods! It’s a pretty awful thing to do, even to someone who is highly inconsiderate.

4) How much the stories are about the challenges of building a community, especially when the “people” in it are flawed: Thr conflict with Tigger is fundamentally about an outsider coming in who doesn’t mesh with the current community. Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet and Pooh all behave poorly and face a variety of consequences for it. Because it is a children’s story, they all learn a lesson at the end and get along, but it isn’t so easy as just a quick fix. While both the outsider and the community chooses to adjust their behavior and expectations to serve the greater good, the story definitely suggests that this is going to be an ongoing struggle for Tigger and Rabbit. Similarly, a story where Owl’s house is destroyed in a big storm is about the sacrifices we make for the people we love. While the storm continues to rain and rain, Eeyore searches for a new home for Owl. Finally, Eeyore announces he has found the perfect house, which Owl declares he loves. The only problem is that it’s already Piglet’s house. Saddened by giving up his house, but wanting his friends to be happy, Piglet makes the sacrifice. Thankfully, Pooh turns it into a relatively happy ending by inviting Piglet to live with him, but it’s pretty obvious that Piglet is still sad about giving up his house. It’s this kind of struggling with real moral issues that really rekindled my love for the movie.

While I’m not against showing Sprout movies and TV shows in general, I do want to be picky about what I show him. Just like his books and bringing him out in nature, I want the pop culture he does consume to be kind, thoughtful, and creative. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh happily met all of my expectations and more.

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