Walt Disney was perhaps the world’s greatest visionary and dreamer. He had the uncanny knack for knowing what people would or wouldn’t like. These qualities made him the world’s most successful businessman, showman and storyteller. He knew the value of hiring the most talented craftsman and artisans money could buy. It was these skilled men and women who helped create the World’s most memorable and beloved characters, movies and stories. But Walt also knew the value of using characters created by other writers and storytellers, acquiring the rights to these and adding the special “Disney” touch to make them even more popular. Such examples include Mary Poppins, written by P.L. Travers or the movie The Absent Minded Professor, taken from a story called “A Situation of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor. Both movies were a phenomenal success.
Another Disney success came from a delightful little bear and his friends who live in the hundred-acre wood. This story sprang from the mind of Alan Alexander Milne or A.A. Milne, the famous English author who also wrote books on various children’s poems. This character and his family of friends became even better known thanks to the magic touch of Walt Disney. Since Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in 1926 in the book Winnie-the-Pooh and the sequel The House at Pooh Corner in 1928, it overshadowed most of the work of A.A, Milne as a playwright and writer.
The Character of Winnie the Pooh (The hyphens were taken out when the Disney Company acquired the franchise) and its name were taken from a Teddy bear that Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, owned and named “Winnipeg” after a bear he and his father often saw at the London Zoo. The name of Pooh was from a swan they had seen on vacation. The bear Winnipeg was very gentle and playful and never known to attack anyone. This is what gave Milne the idea of writing about Pooh Bear. Milne explains in the first chapter in Winnie the Pooh of how the bear is sometimes called just Pooh. His arms were so stiff, whenever a fly landed on his nose; he had to blow it off, thus “Pooh.”
Many of the Characters in the Pooh series were from the names of toys owned by his son, except for Owl and Rabbit, which were based on real animals. Even the Hundred-Acre Wood is taken from the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. The original characters are Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin (Milne’s son), Rabbit, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger. The characters of Gopher, Kessie, Lumpy, Darby, Buster, and Beaver were all additional Disney characters. In any case, Pooh and his friends all live in the Mythical Hundred-Acre wood or “The Wood.” Sometimes, however, acquiring these rights were not as easy as one might think. Despite Walt’s reputation, some writers, like P.L. Travers did not think Walt could do her characters justice in a movie, and it took over 20 years for Disney to obtain those rights. It was a bit different with Winnie the Pooh. In 1930, American television/radio and film producer Stephen Slesinger acquired all the licensing and trade rights to Winnie the Pooh from A.A. Milne. For the next 30years, he marketed Pooh in radio, television, stage and character licensing. He even created Pooh’s trademark red shirt.
After Slesinger’s death in 1953, his wife, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell continued the franchise until 1961 when she licensed the rights to the Walt Disney Company for royalties. In the same year, Milne’s widow, Daphne Milne also gave marketing rights to Disney, including film rights. In the beginning, Walt produced a series of films (cartoons) about the bear, using the original drawings and stories by Slesinger. Disney made three cartoon “Featurettes” about Pooh, the first, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, released on February 4, 1966 followed by Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) and the third, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! (1974). Walt had always intended to make a full-length feature film, and on March 11th, 1977 Disney released the movie The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This feature was a combination of the three previous featurettes. Some differences between the film and book are Piglet’s sweater is green, where in the movie it is red. The character “Gopher” in not in the original stories. Woozles and Heffalumps are not associated with each other as in the original stories. When Tigger and Roo jump out of the tree, it’s winter in the movie, but summer in the books.
The additional fame, which the Walt Disney Company bestowed on the Pooh universe, is unprecedented. There were four featurettes produced, ten full-length features, four television shows, four TV holiday specials, and eleven video games. The stories have been translated into many languages, even Latin. One book published in 1958 and 1960, Winnie ille Pu, was the first foreign-language book featured on the New York Times Bestseller List. Pooh’s birthday is considered August 21, 1921 the day Christopher Robin received him on his first birthday. The newest Pooh film, the first in 35 years simply named Winnie the Pooh is slated to premiere on July 15th, 2011. What makes this new Disney movie even more nostalgic is that it will be traditional hand-drawn animation. The new movie is a tribute to the longevity and love of a simple story about a bear and his friends, a story that takes all of us back to our childhood.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.