Exclusive: Winnie the Pooh Directors Talk Updating a Classic

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Winnie the Pooh is one of those characters so ingrained in a child's imagination, it's hard to imagine anything about the beloved cartoon changing.  But that's just what Disney has done with its brand new feature length movie.  It's the first time classic Pooh has ever been turned into a feature length film - up until now, the stories have consisted of short films, sometimes amalgamated to create longer film, but still shorts nonetheless.

Now, Pooh's off on a brand new adventure in the Hundred Acre Woods and all his friends have come out to play.

We talked to Winnie the Pooh directors Don Hall and Stephen Anderson about making the updated film, but staying true to audience expectations.

Winnie the Pooh Promo

"We were very reverent to the material. It was sort of Burny (story artist), he was sort of our secret weapon because he worked on the original Winnie the Pooh, so he was sort of our Pooh guru," Anderson explained. "Everything had to go through him, the story room, any ideas, it all had to filter through Burny and if he signed off on it, we sort of felt good about it.  And more often than not, he was the one that was pushing forward with stuff."

In keeping true to the original stories, many elements of those beloved short films ("Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too," "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree," "Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore") were kept in as a tribute to the masterful work of A. A. Milne.

Continue reading for more on how Winnie the Pooh has been updated.

One of the most obvious similarities is the tradition of showing the characters interacting with the text of the story onscreen.  Hall explains why it was so important to keep that part in this new film.

"That was one of the first things we remembered as kids with Winnie the Pooh is how those characters play with the letters and we looked back on that so fondly, so we knew that we had to do that."

 "The live-action opening was another really smart thing they did back then was to set up right off the bat that what you’re about to see are stories that take place in a child’s imagination," Anderson continued. "We also wanted to make sure we had a narrator in there that didn’t just open and close the movie like what happens with most movies, but became almost a character throughout, interacted with the other characters, really became part of the cast.  And then certainly music is a huge component of the original Winnie the Pooh films."

But the music is actually updated, with brand new songs and a new rendition of the very popular and iconic song "Winnie the Pooh."

"The theme of making this movie was all about borrowing from the past, but also moving forward to the future and making it our own and music was no different and it was always a tricky balance," said Anderson. "As Don [Hall] said, how nostalgic do we want the music to sound and how contemporary do we want the music to sound.  We are so fortunate between Bobby and Kristen [Lopez], and Zoe [Deschanel] - people that really understood how to walk that line, to really make it fit with the movie."

Another very important part of bringing the new film to life is the voices.  Fans know the original voices from the 1960's, but the people behind the voices have long left their roles.

The very talented Jim Cummings has been playing Pooh and Tigger since the original actors, Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell respectively, retired in the 1980s.  He captures the essence of Pooh and Tigger and the transition is seamless - you can't even tell it's not the original voices.

But what about the other characters - when you watch the movie, they certainly sound different.

"We felt like, some of the supporting character, namely Rabbit and Owl, could be funnier," Hall explaines. "We felt like we could mine them for more humor and it started with getting the right actor in there." 

The right actors came from some surprising sources.  Craig Ferguson lends his voice to the blow-hard nature of Owl and Spongebob vocal alter-ego, Tom Kenny, brings a warmth and humor to the stern Rabbit.

"We kept asking for each character, ‘is this a character that’s defined by the voice or is this really just a character that’s about the personality.'  Which do you have to get right?  Do you have to get the personality and the specific voice?  Or can you just get the personality right and perhaps tweak the voice a little bit?  Certainly Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore were in the ‘you need the voice to be exact’ camp, and then the rest we though as long as you get the character right, as long as you know the personalities, we don’t think the audience will be too bent out of shape if we change the voices a little bit," added Anderson.

Whether the voices are different and the jokes are updated for modern audiences, Hall and Anderson insist the core message is still the same.

"Particularly in this film, we talked about the notion about what are you willing to give up for your friends.  What are you willing to sacrifice?  Who makes a sacrifice?  In the middle of the film, Tigger makes a sacrifice.  He’s willing to set aside the mantel of being the only one to let somebody else in to team up with. It’s not really overt, we don’t want to hit everybody over the head with that theme, it’s kind of very subtly, just as an undercurrent."

Winnie the Pooh hits theaters this Friday, July 15.

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