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“Poor A.A. Milne”: In Which Winnie-the-Pooh is Reclaimed from Disney


Kathryn from 'Through a Glass Brightly' - published on 01/17/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Since there may not be a 'Saving Edward Bear' on the big screen anytime soon, I hope to make a similar contribution here.

This Saturday, January 18th, is Winnie-the-Pooh Day. It is the day on which the author of the beloved stories was born. And today is the best day of the year to remember or learn for the first time that Winnie-the-Pooh was originally a perfectly lovely and delicate story quite distinct from the general awareness of the "adventures" as reinterpreted by Disney from the early 1970s to the present day.

I recently saw the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which is about the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), handing over the film rights to her beloved books to the same Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Travers resisted Disney's courting for 20 years before she found herself nearly broke; and at the insistence of her lawyer, she flew from England to California to give him one last chance to win her trust. (The movie is especially fun for anglophiles like myself who will relish all of the very British reactions to some bits of American garishness—for instance, a giant platter of Jell-O). 

When she arrives at her hotel room, she finds it stuffed with plush Disney creatures, mostly the iconic Mickey Mouse in several sizes. Among them she picks up a Pooh Bear, lifts him up to her face and says, frowningly, "Poor A.A. Milne."

I lit up with a loud, "Ha!" at that moment because I found it very clever and it gave me the idea for this post. Disney had gained to rights to Pooh in 1961 (and dropped the hyphens in the name), the same year in which Saving Mr. Banks takes place. And 52 years later when I saw the movie in December, my four-year-old had just discovered the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories complete with Ernest H. Shepard's subtle and beautiful illustrations. I also scored the excellent audio recordings of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Cornerperformed by Judi Dench, Stephen Frye, and others. These are just delightful. You can purchase them right now with those links. I don't care if you don't have kids, you will love them. They will transport you to the sunny moments of your own childhood. I can sit for hours with my son listening and laughing without ever growing tired of it. (He now says "Bother!" with a British accent all the time and it's awesome.) Having this world of Pooh fresh in my mind, I knew exactly what P.L. Travers meant with that sorrowful sigh. And it was precisely what she feared would be her own fate as expressed in her shout at Walt Disney, "I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!" What she feared most was that her own vision of Mary Poppins would be overshadowed by Disney's and of course that is what happened. I certainly didn't know that there were books (illustrated by Ernest Shepard's daughter Mary, I discovered behind the Julie Andrews/Dick van Dyke phenomenon. Now, Saving Mr. Banks is going a long way towards changing that, thankfully. But since there may not be a Saving Edward Bear or somesuch on the big screen, I hope to make a similar contribution here.

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