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Disney's Winnie-the-Pooh Is Very Different From A.A. Milne's 'Classic Pooh' Book Version  

Karen Lindell
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Winnie-the-Pooh is probably not who you think he is. First, he was born "Edward." When a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne received him as a teddy bear in 1921, purchased from Harrods in London as a present for his 1st birthday, the toy's name was Edward - the proper form of "Teddy." Christopher later changed it to Winnie, after a bear he visited at the London Zoo. The "Pooh" was based on Milne's name for a swan he liked to feed.

Beyond his name, the real Winnie-the-Pooh is not the grinning, yellow, red-shirted bear you are familiar with from the Disney films, TV shows, theme parks, and merchandise galore. The real Pooh (AKA "Classic Pooh") is the bear as drawn by illustrator E.H. Shepard in the stories by A.A. Milne: Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926, and The House at Pooh Corner, published in 1928. 

Shepard and Milne's bear is different in many ways from the Disney version, from how he looks, to the way he speaks, and the adventures he gets caught up in. Disney even eliminated the hyphens from his name. Pooh's forest companions - Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Christopher Robin - are different, too, in both looks and personality. (The characters are so well-known that some people have even formed a theory they represent mental illnesses.) 

After A.A. Milne passed in 1956, film rights to his Pooh characters were sold to Disney, which released the film short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966, followed by additional short films and the full-length movies The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Tigger Movie (2000), Piglet's Big Movie (2003), Pooh's Heffalump Movie (2005), and Winnie the Pooh (2011), plus numerous TV shows and DVDs. 

British people in particular have been (to borrow a Milne word) "bothered" by the Disney portrayal of Pooh and pals, claiming the characters have lost some of their charm and much of their Britishness. Although there's no harm in loving Disney's sweet Winnie-the-Pooh characters, they aren't the classic characters from the original books.  

Illustrator E.H. Shepard Called The First Disney Film 'A Complete Travesty'
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Illustrator Ernest Howard Shepard (better known as E.H. Shepard) created the original drawings for A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books and stories. The first version of the bear to appear in print was published in Punch magazine in 1924 and accompanied a poem by Milne, titled, "Teddy Bear." In the poem, the bear is called by his original name, Edward Bear. Milne's son Christopher later dubbed him Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Shepard's Pooh looks very different from the Disney version created by animators and featured more than 40 years later in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. The 26-minute animated movie was the first of three short films released by Disney based on Milne's stories. The three shorts were later combined into a full-length feature, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, in 1977. 

Shepard, who did not work on the Disney films, called the first movie "a complete travesty." It's not clear if he was referring to some of the plot details - such as the introduction of a gopher character and the absence of Piglet - or the way the characters were drawn and animated.

Winnie-the-Pooh purists familiar with Shepard's wispy drawings agree that Disney's more simplistic Pooh, with his coloring-book look, is not the same. When an exhibit of Shepard's original Pooh drawings and illustrations went on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2017, curator Annemarie Bilclough told Artsy that Shepard "rarely gives the characters facial expressions, but suggests character instead through the characters’ posture." For Tigger and Kanga in particular, she noted, "the imagery remained very true to the original toy."

Disney, Bilclough said, "gave Pooh an expression, which Shepard rarely did."  

Disney Filmmakers Thought A.A. Milne's Pooh Stories Were Too British
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Photo:  The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh/Shutterstock.com

According to Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley in their book The Disney Studio Story, the creators of the first adaptation of Milne's book characters (1966's Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree) worried the "Britishness" of the characters wouldn't appeal to US audiences.

A 1966 article in London's Daily Mail ran with the headline, "Massacre in 100 Aker Wood... Or How Disney the Walt Said Pooh to Winnie." Its writers said they wanted to "defend against an extraordinary attack [on] one of the last proud remnants of the British Empire - Winnie-the-Pooh." 

The article criticized the filmmakers for Americanizing the stories by giving the characters US instead of British accents, and adding a new gopher character that seemed particularly American. It also objected to replacing the sophisticated "hums" and rhymes of Milne's version with tunes by the Sherman brothers, known for creating the music for Mary Poppins and other Disney films.

To director Wolfgang Reitherman and his colleagues, the Daily Mail wrote, "Winnie-the-Pooh is not really all that different from Mickey Mouse."

Disney's Pooh Wears A Red Shirt, But In The Books He's Mostly A Bare Bear
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In most Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and in A.A. Milne's books of poetry featuring illustrations of Pooh, he's pretty much unclothed. One exception occurs in the first chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, in which Pooh wears a vest - presumably because it's wintertime and snow is falling. 

Yet, a key identifier of the Disney Pooh is his bright red shirt, which he wears in rain, shine, or snow. The too-small top emphasizes (and perhaps mocks) his large tummy, and adds a pop of color. It likely does keep him warm in the cold, but it's not completely faithful to his representation in the books.

Annemarie Bilclough, co-curator of the "Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic" exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2017, told Artsy that Disney "made his red jacket a signature of the imagery."

According to James Campbell's book The Art of Winnie-the-Pooh: How E.H. Shepard Illustrated an Icon, Shepard did create a rough pencil sketch of Pooh and Piglet wearing hats, scarves, and boots, including Pooh in a jacket while standing in the snow - but the illustration was never used. As Campbell noted, this outerwear "changes the impression of both characters - they both seem more constrained, less free, and perhaps more human when wrapped up for the cold."

The Disney Pooh Animal Characters Have Midwestern Rather Than British Accents
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Winnie-the-Pooh and his pals are British. The stories were written by British author A.A. Milne, the real toys the characters were based on came from England, and the Hundred Acre Wood they reside in is based on the real Ashdown Forest in East Sussex near Milne's country farm in Hartfield. So, like most other long-time residents of Britain who grew up there and have never lived in another country, they logically have English accents.

The Disney movies, however, created by US filmmakers to appeal to a US audience, gave the animals American accents. Director Wolfgang Reitherman told the Daily Mail, "The Midwest accent is the generally neutral accent at which we aim as it is acceptable to the whole American market."

Yet, Christopher Robin, who is based on Milne's son, does have a British accent.

According to Ann Thwaite in her book The Brilliant Career of Winnie-the-Pooh: The Definitive History of the Best Bear in All the World, a film critic from London's Evening News, Felix Barker, so objected to the American accents in the movie that he waged a campaign to at least change Christopher Robin's voice. He succeeded, and the filmmakers dubbed his voice with a "standard southern English" accent.