When Disney released The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh three decades
ago, it quickly became a family classic, despite the broad liberties taken with
A.A. Milne’s wonderful source material. Whimsical and innocent, the three episodes
that made up the film benefitted greatly from a buoyant array of songs penned
by the legendary Richard and Roger Sherman, not to mention a long-standing merchandising
agreement with Sears stores that proved more than a little lucrative over the
But as Disney grew more corporate, Pooh became less of a “bear of very little
brain” and more of a franchise, and the silly whimsy that made the original
animation so appealing was lost. The television series The New Adventures
of Winnie the Pooh was well done, but was thoroughly Americanized and focused
on Pooh, Piglet and Tigger to the exclusion of the other characters. When it
came to full-length pictures, the results were even less impressive. Pooh’s
Grand Adventure could more accurately be called “Pooh’s Bland Adventure,”
and The Tigger Movie unwisely traded silly mayhem for melancholy psychobabble.
Fortunately, with Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, the folks at Disney seem to
have finally remembered that Pooh movies are supposed to be fun.
There’s a lot to like about Heffalump, a lot the creators get right
about it — even if it is yet another broad departure from the original
Milne stories (one keeps wondering if they will ever wise up and show
how Pooh discovered the North Pole).
One of the most charming characters from Milne’s fantasies was Roo, the eager,
pre-adolescent kangaroo who was always too young and too small to keep up with
his enthusiasms. The Tigger Movie gave him a key role after years of
neglect in which the TV series ignored him completely, but with Heffalump
Roo is wisely featured front and center. Like Batman's younger half, Robin,
Roo gives younger viewers a character they can emphathize and identify with.
Pooh may fill the role of best friend, and Tigger the fun playmate, but Roo
is a little kid, and his presence makes all the goings-on in the Hundred
Acre Wood more relevant.
Heffalumps — those surreal pachyderms first introduced in a psychedelic Pooh
nightmare during Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day — have once again
made themselves known in the Hundred Acre Wood. Terrified of a heffalump devouring
all the honey in the forest — and after a good bit of vilification to stoke the
thinly-veiled flames of racism — Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Tigger and Eeyore set
off on an expedition to capture and imprison all rampaging heffalumps so they
will no longer pose a threat. It is little Roo, though, who first makes contact
with the enemy, lassoing a roly-poly, lavender, and very British heffalump by
the name of Lumpy. Before you can say “Oh, bother,” the pair become fast friends — if
a bit too giggly — and have a great time together before plot complications intervene.
The overriding message of the story is none too subtle, although none of the
characters ever come right out and say, “It’s bad to judge people by their skin
color/ethnicity/religion/animal species.” Thank goodness. Lumpy works as a character
— bordering on cloying at times, but eliciting surprisingly emotional
reactions all the same — and his relationship with Roo goes a long way
toward imparting the message of tolerance to this movie’s pre- (and post-) adolescent
viewers without talking down to them.
Frankly, it’s a heck of a lot more than I was expecting from this film, particularly
given the background of the creative talent behind it — director Frank
Nissen’s previous major credits were as a story artist on Disney’s half-hearted
Land Before Time remake Dinosaur and as an animator on Ralph Bakshi’s
Rock & Rule; while screenwriters Brian Hohlfeld and Evan Spiliotopoulos
were the scribes behind Piglet’s Big Movie and Mickey, Donald, Goofy:
The Three Musketeers, respectively. Granted, nobody’s going to confuse Heffalump
with Fantasia anytime soon, but this is a textbook case of setting out
to accomplish a very specific goal and achieving that goal quite effectively.
The only significant disappointment in the movie is the soundtrack. Chock full
of original pieces composed by Carly Simon, the result is pretty much what one
would expect from a one-time chart topper now slumming amongst “children’s films.”
In a word: Pablum. Uninspired and relentlessly dull, only two songs even begin
to stand out. Of those, “In the Name of the Hundred Acre Wood” sounds for all
the world like it was inspired by a Sailor Moon catch-phrase, while “Horribly
Hazardous Heffalumps!” only succeeds in reminding viewers that “Heffalumps and
Woozles” by the Sherman brothers was infinitely superior.
Unlike Disney’s recent re-releases of older films on DVD, some degree of effort
was put into the DVD package for Heffalump. A particluarly nice touch
was designing all of the menu screens in a style reminiscent of the “Classic
Pooh” illustrations by Ernest Shepard from the original A.A. Milne books.
Among the more substantial features on the disc, the nearly-obligatory “making-of”
documentary explores some of the behind-the-scenes activities that went into
bringing the film to life. Unlike most extras of this sort, however, this one
is tailored to the same children who presumably make up Heffalump’s primary
audience, striking a light-hearted, airy tone and interspersing commentary from
the director and writers with that of assorted children. The result is amusing,
and if it isn’t in-depth then at least it’s honest and unpretentious.
The “Music Time” segment skips right to the songs along with on-screen lyrics.
Normally, this would be a great help for parents whose little ones are obsessed
with the music (as little ones so often can become), but the songs are so lifeless
that I can’t imagine even the most tone-deaf of youngsters wanting to sing along.
There is an interactive hide-and-seek game, which is pretty much the same as
all the other hide-and-seek games on Disney releases such as Lady and the
Tramp 2 and 101 Dalmatians 2. Other bonus features include coloring
pages that can be printed out from a computer, and a recipe for Lumpy’s rumpledoodle
cookies. There’s nothing earth-shaking among the extras, but quite frankly,
it’s hard to imagine how something like a director’s commentary track or storyboards
would add anything of significant value to the package.
Almost all sales of Heffalump are going to be a direct result of children’s
desires — few, if any, copies of this are going to be picked up by adults on
their own. And that’s fine. It’s fun and even silly at times, conveying important
life lessons without becoming preachy. Heffalump is an unapologetic children’s
movie, and if it doesn’t embrace adults, neither does it push them away.
The Movie Itself: 6 out of 10
The DVD Features: 6 out of 10