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The Pooh with a Thousand Faces

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

 
Fig. 1: Three versions of Pooh: Sheppard's illustration, Disney's animated, and Disney's CGI

This March marks the 46th anniversary of Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), the twentieth anniversary of Piglet's Big Movie (2003), and the nineteenth anniversary of Springtime with Roo (2004). Winnie the Pooh, based on Christopher Milne’s stuffed animal, A. A. Milne’s words, and E. H. Shepard’s illustrations, has become a member of many American households, beloved because of both the books and Disney’s reimaginings of them. Disney notoriously has a bad habit of adapting well-known children’s stories and trying to overshadow the original text. While there are several ways to see how Disney engages in the erasure of their source texts, perhaps no method is more visible than how Disney creates distinct character design in order to maintain copyright, which can be seen in the evolution of everyone’s favorite silly old bear.


Disney has ensured that Pooh’s “visual design” has been “a battleground in the marketplace” (Taylor 2005, 182) since his first appearance in Disney’s short, “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” in 1966. In fact, according to a Forbes study in 2003, Winnie the Pooh was, at the time, the most profitable fictional character with a copyrighted image (“Top-Earning”). Pooh’s spot at the top was most likely due to the fact that there were, in fact, two copyrights for the Pooh image: Milne’s/Sheppard’s and Disney’s. As of now, there are five visual iterations of Pooh across the two copyright holders (as can be seen in the timeline): the original toy, Shepard’s illustration of that toy, Disney’s animated Pooh, Disney’s live-action Pooh (seen in the beginning live-action frame of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), what Disney has marketed as Classic Pooh (which is a combination of Shepard’s Pooh and Disney’s animated Pooh), and Disney’s live-action Pooh as seen in Christopher Robin (2019).


Disney’s original Pooh looks very little like the toy or Sheppard illustrations that came before. That difference has a dual effect: on the one hand, the stark variance allows Disney to copyright their own Pooh, separate from Sheppard (who Disney does not acknowledge as a precursor until Christopher Robin, instead only acknowledging Milne as creator) in order to more effectively profit off the image. On the other hand, designing such an iconic original image helps Disney create a separation between the two version of the characters, the better to distinguish Disney’s Pooh and crown him king of all Poohs. When the copyright of Milne’s and Sheppard’s Pooh officially expired January 1, 2022, Disney, at last, won the war for Pooh’s copyright.


However, as Disney worked to win the war for the top Pooh, they came to realize that many people still have nostalgia for Sheppard’s Pooh. Svetlana Boym (2001) defines nostalgia (“from nostos—return home, and algia—longing”) as “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed” (xiii). As people longed for Sheppard’s Pooh (itself an adaptation of a real child’s toy), Disney decided to create a new Pooh, their Classic Pooh, which would allow people to buy Disney merchandise yet still feel like they were returning to the fictional home Milne and Sheppard originally created. Aaron Taylor (2005) argues that, in creating the Classic Pooh, Disney tries to erase the illustrator until Disney’s representations are the only visual references consumers can or will imbibe.


In many ways, this slight-of-hand works, as Disney’s Classic Pooh is extremely financially viable. However, Classic Pooh only existed in merchandising until they recreated him for Christopher Robin. Pooh in this film has the coloring of Christopher Milne’s toy, the face of Sheppard’s drawings, the body shape of Disney’s Classic Pooh, and the iconic red shirt of Disney’s animated Pooh. People who see this seemingly live-action stuffed animal may believe that they are looking at a recreation of Christopher Milne’s real toy, Shepard’s drawings, or Disney’s Pooh, and any guess would be some version of the truth.

This design collapses time and creator in a fascinating way that encourages the audience to see this Pooh as a stand in for every Pooh that they may know.


Fig. 8: Christopher Milne plays with toy Pooh and Disney's Christopher Robin hugs his Pooh

By creating a Pooh that evokes all earlier Poohs, the film encourages audience members to long for their earlier Pooh, even if this Pooh is not directly based on any one Pooh, allowing for a more universal longing for anyone who has ever experienced any iteration of the character. Disney thus replaces Milne’s and Shepard’s Pooh with their own new-old one, a figure that has never existed yet encourages all Pooh lovers to long for a time in the past. Whether that time is 1926, when Milne first published Winnie-the-Pooh; 1966, when Disney released their first Pooh short; 1977, with the release of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh; or any of the years Disney released the many Pooh sequels and television series, Christopher Robin asks the audience to think back to their own experience of Winnie(-)the(-)Pooh, by way of Disney, by way of Milne.


This longing for a past (any past) is a transgenerational one, as it brings together audiences of different generations to feel nostalgia over the same object, even if their original reference is different: they are addressed all together with one bear. In creating both the Classic Pooh and the Pooh of Christopher Robin, Disney uses nostalgia to capture full control of audiences’ relationships to Pooh. Pooh may be a bear with a thousand different faces, but Disney has brought all of those faces together and copyrighted them to fully control this iconic character.


 

References:


Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books, 2001.


Christopher Robin. Directed by Marc Forster, performances by Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, and Bronte Carmichael, Walt Disney Pictures, 2018.


The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Directed by John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman, performances by Sebastian Cabot and Sterling Holloway, Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1977.


Taylor, Aaron. “Everybody Wants a Piece of Pooh: Winnie, from Adaptation to Market Saturation.” Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions, edited by Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch, Wesleyan University Press, 2005, pp. 181–198.


“Top-Earning Fictional Characters.” Forbes, 25 Sep 2003, https://www.forbes.com/2003/09/25/cx_al_fictionalslide.html#35c090e123e7. Accessed 16 Jan 2020.


Milne, A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, Yearling Book, 1926.


Images:


Fig. 1: Welk, Brian. "The Evolution of Winnie the Pooh, From AA Milne to 'Christopher


Fig. 2: Copyright owned by New York Public Library, as appears in: De Maria, Meghan. "The

Real-Life Winnie the Pooh Looked Nothing Like You Think." Refinery 29, 13 Oct 2017, https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2017/10/176419/winnie-the-pooh-original-aa-milne.


Fig. 3: Milne, A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, Yearling Book, 1926.


Fig. 4 & 5: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Directed by John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman, performances by Sebastian Cabot and Sterling Holloway, Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1977.


Fig. 6: Copyright owned by Disney, as appears in: "Vintage Classic Winnie Pooh Tigger


Fig. 7: Christopher Robin. Directed by Marc Forster, performances by Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, and Bronte Carmichael, Walt Disney Pictures, 2018.


Fig. 8: Sánchez, Anna Brenda. "Winnie the Pooh: The Heartbreaking Real Story Behind the

Iconic Glutton Bear." Collective Culture, 15 July 2022, https://culturacolectiva.com/books/winnie-the-pooh-real-origin-story/.


 

But wait! There's MORE!


If you love all things Disney, if you had a presentation that you would love to see written down (and citable) come out into the world, email Bee! Check out our Want to Write for DisNet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)


 

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