Without the help of special 3-D glasses or Pixar-style bells and whistles, the new "Winnie the Pooh" film succeeds in transporting its audience to a place every bit as magical, where the hidden treasure is found in simple pleasures and sacred friendship.
At a throw-back 63 minutes long, "Winnie the Pooh," directed by Stephen J. Anderson ("Meet the Robinsons"), is a tale that surely appeals to the kindergarten crowd. But it will also charm parents who, like me, probably saw the first "Pooh" movie in 1977, when they were still small enough to feel their feet dangle from the theater seats.
"Pooh" is a nostalgic romp as familiar and comfortable as an old sweater, with its tried-and-true pen-and-ink-style animation, sweet story line and characters many of us know like the back of our hand: The eponymous "silly old bear" and his cronies, Christopher Robin, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo.
Narrated by Monty Python alum John Cleese, the latest "Pooh" adventure is simple and yet profound, much like A.A. Milne's nearly 100-year-old stories upon which the Pooh films are based.
The story unfolds (literally) in the pages of a storybook where the letters themselves become part of the plot. Pooh awakens reluctantly and with the help of the narrator who turns the book upside down to get the sleepy bear out of bed, and is immediately reminded that he is hungry
and out of honey. "Oh bother," Pooh says.
Bother, indeed. As Pooh sets out to find, beg or borrow some honey to slake his appetite, he encounters the morose donkey Eeyore who is even more down than usual after misplacing his tacked-on tail.
With the help of Christopher Robin, in his English schoolboy beanie and short pants, Pooh and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood crew stage a contest to find Eeyore a new tail. The prize is a pot of honey.
Eventually, the crew believes Christopher Robin, who has gone off to school, has been kidnapped by a creature called "Backson," a misinterpretation of the words "back soon" from a note Christopher leaves behind. So begins a mission to "rescue" the boy from the monster
who, the Owl explains, keeps people "very busy."
If the laughter that came from a half-dozen other parents in the theater with me was any indication, I was not alone in interpreting "Backson" as a metaphor for adulthood. There was something quite touching about the wholehearted commitment Pooh and his stuffed-animal
friends demonstrated in their quest to rescue Christopher Robin from such a fate.
While "Winnie the Pooh" doesn't contain any material that could be described as religious by any stretch of the imagination, its characters and their relationships do speak to something eternal. Over the years much has been written about Milne's Hundred Acre Wood characters and how they might correspond to philosophy, religion and psychology -- each representing a particular personality type, etc. Books such as "The Tao of Pooh" and "The Te of Piglet" have sought to explain the Eastern spirituality of Taoism through the Pooh characters.
The enduring message of the new "Pooh" film is something even more universal.
To my eye, the new "Winnie the Pooh" is an ode to soul friendships, the kind that bring unlikely cohorts together in love and loyalty, without letting petty insults or judgmentalism get in the way.
You never hear Owl or Rabbit question whether Pooh might have a "problem" with his insatiable appetite for honey. But they are good at distracting him with more important things when his desire borders on obsession.
Eeyore is perennially gloomy, but his friends never get tired of trying to cheer him or point him toward the sunnier side of life. Piglet is neurotic and fearful, but rather than indulge those predilections, his friends give him opportunities to be braver than he thinks he is. Hyperactive, slightly crazy Tigger is loved precisely for who he is, even if that means Eeyore must endure strapping on a spring and being painted with tiger stripes to join in one of his fantastical friend's hunting expeditions.
"Ever have one of those days where you just can't win?" Pooh asks his sad sidekick.
"Pooh, I know how you feel," Eeyore replies.
Each of us has a bit of Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and the rest inside of us. And in our circles of closest friends -- true soul friends, if we're lucky enough to have them -- we take turns embodying each of their personality traits.
Such is the joy of true friendship, the kind that is, in a very real way, sacred. We are known, accepted and embraced -- honey addictions and all -- for who we are; carry each other when we need to be carried, help us find our missing tails and occasionally rescue one another from the monsters of adulthood.
"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create)," Milne's fellow Englishman and author C.S. Lewis once said. "It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival."
Thank God for the blessing of simple things and silly old bears.
This column appears via the Religion News Service.