The Problem with Poohby Wade Sampson, staff writer
Oh bother! The bear with very little brain through no fault of his own certainly seems to be a troublesome bruin even as he finishes celebrating his 80th birthday and gets a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Pooh's popularity continues to increase in every country from Hong Kong to Poland, and the flood of Pooh merchandise shows no signs of abating.
Yet, in his later years, author A.A. Milne's affection for the character dimmed as he felt his other work was being ignored and that he was being classified in a derogatory way as simply a "children's author." Christopher Robin Milne whose real life stuffed toy served as both the model and name for the character grew to dislike the bear as recounted in Milne's autobiography, The Enchanted Places.
Today, in a battle left over from the Eisner Era, the Disney Company continues to have its financial resources drained as it battles the merchandising rights claimed by the heirs of Stephen Slesinger, a literary agent who obtained those rights from Milne himself. The heirs claim that Disney has cheated them out of more than one billion dollars in royalties and seek to break their company's contract with Disney.
This unpleasantness has continued for years. A Los Angeles judge sanctioned Disney for destroying some 40 boxes of documents that were clearly labeled relevant to the case. A different judge threw out the entire case when Disney complained the Slesinger heirs had obtained confidential documents from its trash.
Disney even had Clare Milne, the granddaughter of Pooh's creator, try and terminate the Slesinger rights under copyright law in court and then sell those rights to Disney. (The fact that at the time Clare was in a nursing home and didn't understand the difference between a thousand pounds and one million pounds made no difference.) The courts refused to hear the case.
Much more detailed articles have been written about the situation, which only shows signs of escalating even further unless Robert Iger decides to take a different approach and resolve the matter.
However, Disney's problem with Pooh really began over 40 years ago.
A.A. Milne had admired Walt Disney. He even wrote to Kenneth Grahame's widow about Toad of Toad Hall that, "I expect you have heard that Disney is interested in it? It is just the thing for him, of course, and he would do it beautifully." When Disney finally made Wind in the Willows, the story reflected Milne's renowned stage adaptation of the tale as much as the original story.
When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937 to such success, Walt aggressively and quickly looked to obtain the rights to other fanciful stories, from Peter Pan to Winnie the Pooh. Walt had a two-fold purpose: To obtain material for future projects, and to prevent other studios from producing films based on those stories. Sometimes, the quest for those rights took decades. In the case of Winnie the Pooh, Walt made several attempts in the 1940s and '50s to obtain the rights even though it seemed apparent that Walt had little personal enthusiasm for the characters and the stories.
While merchandising rights for the characters had been sold, theatrical rights had not during Milne's lifetime. (In 1958, Milne's widow sold the rights to NBC that produced an unsatisfactory pilot film; two years later, the rights reverted to the Milne Estate.)
On July 16, 1961, the Disney Studios obtained the rights but it was still years before Walt announced that he was planning an animated feature based on Milne's books. As Walt continued to discuss the project, he made the decision that American audiences might not fully embrace such a British influenced story and that it was best to begin with a "featurette" to introduce the characters. (Those who worked with Walt have told me that he still probably had painful memories about the feature length Alice in Wonderland.)
While there were many animators on staff who adored the Milne characters and stories, Walt seems to have purposely assigned a production team who were completely unfamiliar with Milne's work.
Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman was assigned to direct and in an interview from that time period seems to take pride in the fact that he had never heard of Pooh until Walt mentioned it in 1961. Woolie felt that he was being punished by being assigned to this mild-mannered featurette, especially since he had just started directing the Disney animated features.
When confronted by British reporters about the absence of the character of Piglet, Woolie responded, "As far as Piglet is concerned, we're all guilty." Woolie claimed that when the film was cut from full-length to featurette that Piglet was left on the cutting room floor because there was simply no room for the character.
That remark sparked the ire of the British press, who wanted to know then why there was room for an American gopher. Tigers and kangaroos are not native to the United Kingdom either but their toy counterparts had been purchased in England and the stories indicate that they relocated to the 100 Acre Woods. The gopher (voiced by Howard Morris and reminiscent of the beaver character in Lady and the Tramp) was clearly a resident and seemed to indicate the stories took place in the United States.
The gopher's claim that "I'm not in the book" didn't seem to produce many smiles from Brits wondering if Walt was trying too hard to Americanize their well-loved stories. The characters, including Christopher Robin, seemed to speak in a Midwest American accent instead of a British one.
"The Midwest accent is the generally neutral accent at which we aim as it is acceptable in the whole American market," claimed Woolie, who had cast his own son, Bruce, in the role of Christopher Robin, "We've got the spirit of Milne and Shepard?but it's Disney, too!"
Christopher Robin was physically changed as well. Animator Hal King said, "Christopher Robin came out too sissified. So we gave him a haircut and some decent clothes." (Apparently, this makeover was not strong enough since in Disney's newest television program, Christopher Robin is replaced by the tomboyish girl called Darby.)
Milne's niece, Angela, who was a regular contributor to Punch, wrote a satirical piece at the time about how "Americanizing" the Pooh stories was her grandfather's intent all along and that it was the publishers who forced him to retain a sense of British flavor.
There were complaints about the redesign of Pooh himself. Not realizing the difficulty of animating a stuffed toy (especially in a pre-computer era), complaints were thrown at abandoning the original Shepard design. Fun was made of Pooh's red T-shirt, even though Pooh bears wearing such a shirt were authorized and sold at F.A.O. Schwarz store in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. (From an animation standpoint, the T-shirt helps define the character, much like Mickey Mouse's shorts.)
Despite the barbs, the "featurette" was popular in the United States and overseas.
Milne's widow, Daphne, said in an interview:
"Ever since I sold the film rights of the Pooh books to Mr. Walt Disney, I had been wondering with some anxiety what he would make of them in a cartoon. I had confidence in Mr. Disney's genius for handling imaginative themes?yet, one never knows whether one is going to agree! On an evening last August, I turned on the television in my London flat to see a brief advance excerpt of the Pooh cartoon being shown in a program of Walt Disney films. I was nervous. If I did not like this version of Pooh, I would feel deeply disappointed and hurt. Pooh is part of my life, part of my cherished memories. I leaned forward. There was a nursery scene and a glimpse of Christopher Robin as a child in cartoon. There was the tree in the 100 Aker Wood with bees buzzing about it, and Pooh, attached to a balloon, sailing upwards in search of honey, his favorite food? I relaxed. It was all right. Nothing jarred. I was very relieved."
Ernest Shepard, who had illustrated the books and was in his 90s, declared that the Disney version was "a complete travesty."
Despite the success of the featurette (certainly better remembered that the live action film it accompanied in theaters, The Ugly Dachshund), the Disney Company was sensitive to the criticism from the British Isles and in the next featurettes, Piglet returned and Christopher Robin sounded British.
However, that rocky beginning was a preview of Pooh problems to come for the Disney Company.