There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, a 2005 animated feature, and the fourth theatrically released Walt Disney adaptation of A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard’s classic 1920s children’s books Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. The film mostly follows Kanga’s son Roo, as he sets off on his own to find the dreaded Heffalump that Rabbit, Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger are sure has been terrorizing the Hundred Acre Wood. While the older animals are off on their own Heffalump hunt, Roo stumbles across Heffridge Trumpler Brompet Heffalump IV (aka “Lumpy”), a sweet-natured, fun-loving creature who teaches everyone a valuable lesson about the drawbacks of xenophobia.
Why watch now?
Because Disney’s (mostly) live-action movie Christopher Robin opens this weekend.
Not to be confused with last year’s Goodbye Christopher Robin (a biographical drama about Milne’s sometimes-difficult relationship with his son), this Christopher Robin is a fictional, fantastical story about the Pooh books’ lone human character, who grows up to be a workaholic Londoner (Ewan McGregor) then rediscovers the imagination and playfulness of his youth when Pooh and his other stuffed animal friends unexpectedly reenter his life. Directed by Finding Neverland’s Marc Forster and written by indie film auteur Alex Ross Perry (with reported polishes from Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy and Hidden Figures’ Allison Schroeder), Christopher Robin has a lot in common with the anglophilic whimsy of the recent Paddington pictures, combined with the 1991 “adult Peter Pan” adventure Hook, among other stories about business-folk pushed by circumstance into reconsidering what’s important.
And what is important, at least in the Pooh-verse? That’s kind of been an unresolved question with this movie series since it first hit the big screen in the 1960s. Walt Disney was near the end of his life when he finally got the rights to Milne’s Pooh books, and as with other beloved children’s properties that Disney coveted (like Mary Poppins, for example), the initial Winnie the Pooh shorts that the producer helped oversee have some of the flavor of the original and a lot of the studio’s house style. Milne’s subtle verbal wit survives in those early shorts — which were later combined into the 1977 feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh — but the character designs are bolder than Shepard’s elegant smudges, and the humor tends toward the broad and clownish.
Even people who consider themselves “Pooh fans” don’t always agree on the movies’ proper form or purpose. Are these adorable little comedies for tiny tots? Are they wry, literary, surprisingly profound stories for all ages? Up to and including Christopher Robin, Disney’s Pooh properties have been all over the map stylistically. Because the character and his pals sell a lot of merchandise for the company, they’ve been regularly featured in TV series and straight-to-video movies, which often skew very young. But Pooh’s Heffalump Movie actually came at the end of a half-decade stretch where the Japan-based DisneyToon Studios was cranking out high-quality theatrical features (including 2000’s The Tigger Movie and 2003’s Piglet’s Big Movie) that were more boisterous and playful and easier for adults to enjoy.
Who it’s for
Animation buffs and parents of very young children who are looking for a gentle movie that isn’t insipid.
Let’s be clear: unlike some films in this franchise, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie isn’t really for a general audience. Although The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of the more toddler-friendly Disney features, it does include a lot of Milne’s original language and storytelling, and thus still resonates with some adults who grew up with the books. The most recent Winnie the Pooh movie, meanwhile, is hilariously absurdist in a way that connects more broadly. It holds some historical interest, too, as (for now) the last traditionally cel-animated feature from the main Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, on the other hand, is primarily pitched at preschoolers. Aside from the characters involved (and their well-established character traits), the story isn’t especially Milne-esque. The movie isn’t aiming to be clever or slyly philosophical. This is a low-incident / low-impact adventure, with some light cartoon slapstick, a simple message, and a few catchy Carly Simon songs.
But those songs really are nice — or, in the case of Rabbit and Tigger’s martial anthem about the dangers of Heffalumps, charmingly silly. As a piece of animation, the movie is colorful and clean, with Disney’s classic Pooh designs displaying a polish that’s become increasingly rare in an art form that’s lately been dominated by the cheap, frayed minimalism of TV cartoons.
The real selling point of this movie, though, is the voice acting of Kyle Stanger as Lumpy. The rest of the cast is filled with old pros like John Fielder (Piglet) and Jim Cummings (Pooh and Tigger). Even the teenage Nikita Hopkins (Roo) had been in the business for six years pre-Heffalump. Stanger, though, was an eight-year-old newcomer at the time, and he sounds endearingly natural… almost unscripted. As Lumpy lets Roo into his world, he wins the audience over, too.
Where to see it
Netflix. Until Disney launches its own subscription streaming service (currently rumored to be coming in late 2019), the studio’s classic films and shorts will likely keep coming and going from Netflix somewhat arbitrarily. So perhaps at some point in the months ahead, the superior 1977 and 2011 Pooh pictures will be available. In the meantime, Milne lovers can enjoy both Heffalump and the divisive 1997 straight-to-video project Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin. The latter looks gorgeous, but it’s a little different in tone from the books and the other movies.