If you remember Disney's first recreations of A.A. Milne's children's stories back in the 1960s, the very word Heffalump will bring a rush of memories. For you, perhaps, the name Winnie the Pooh may immediately conjure up garishly polka-dotted, slightly psychotic elephants. It all goes back the most memorable scene of any Pooh cartoon: In 1968's Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, our cuddly friend falls asleep during a rainstorm, only to lapse into a dream sequence in which Heffalumps and Woozles attempt to separate him from his stash of sweet honey. OK, it's not flying-monkeys-in-The-Wizard-of-Oz scary, but for toddlers, the thrill threshold is pretty low.
So it's not surprising that honchos at Disney would finally tap the Heffalumps for a starring role. What is surprising -- and disappointing -- is that the Heffalumps in this feature have nothing to do with those menacing mastodons from Pooh's past.
Now might be a good time to point out that I'm a few years removed from this movie's target demographic of age 8 and under. Few of the kids who see this film will feel manipulated by the bait-and-switch use of the Heffalump icon -- but the parents who spend their money to take their kids to this film may feel that way. Rather than lovingly maintaining a key franchise (as they did very well with 2000's The Tigger Movie), Disney appears to be content simply to cash in. Kids will still laugh at Tigger's pratfalls and Eeyore's deadpan punch lines, but there's none of the kind of emotional depth that can burn the best children's films into a child's little tabula rasa.
Parents really shouldn't encourage this kind of filmmaking. Although it may clock in at 68 minutes, any editor with a conscience could easily work this movie down to 45 minutes. And in a clear act of Pooh sacrilege, they don't even bother to include Owl! (Must've been too expensive to draw another character.) With Dreamworks and Pixar raising the ante in animated films, this kind of effort just isn't going to get it done for Disney. (In fact, the film was first slated for a straight-to-video release, where it should have stayed.)
As for the story itself, it eventually offers up a sufficiently value-forming message -- one that even some prominent grown-ups still might need to hear. It seems that even the Hundred Acre Wood isn't safe from illegal immigration, so Rabbit forms a posse to prevent outsiders from pouring in from neighboring Heffalump Hollow. In fact, Pooh and Company get so worked up, they build their very own little Guantanamo Bay and manage to capture one of the interlopers. But Roo has befriended locked-up Lumpy -- forcing Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit and Eeyore to reconsider their fear of those cut from different cloth. In the end, they see that that Heffalumps are really just like them -- cute little stuffed animals brought to life in Christopher Robin's imagination. If only Disney could get Christopher Robin to direct the next Pooh film....
Publication date: 2/17/05