By Stephanie Zacharek
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For those viewers hailing from the lucrative under-6 demographic, Pooh's Heffalump Movie will prove to be a suitably sweet addition to the Winnie-the-Pooh cinematic canon. The youngest of them certainly won't recognize the story's central message -- accept others, especially purple elephant-looking creatures with dreadlocks, for who they are -- though they certainly will be able to relate to the characters, especially Roo, the little kid kangaroo who is the hero of the story.
Created by English playwright and author A.A. Milne more than 80 years ago, Pooh and his cohorts -- Tigger, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Rabbit and Eeyore -- are among the planet's most recognizable and beloved of storybook characters. Given their ubiquity -- in the Western world, at least -- it is perhaps surprising to learn that Milne produced only two narrative books and two books of verse about Pooh and his friends (all four volumes were illustrated by E.H. Shepard). The franchise started as a series of short stories published in the London Evening News.
Then Mickey Mouse took over the operation. Walt Disney purchased the rights to the Pooh books in 1961 and quickly began expanding the Pooh oeuvre by devising new story ideas for both book and screen. Pooh's Heffalump Movie is the studio's third "original" feature, the first two -- as any parent knows -- being The Tigger Movie (2000) and Piglet's BIG Movie (2003). The real moneymaker for Disney, of course -- and thus the real destination for the films -- is the video market.
In this latest adventure, the gang goes hunting for Heffalumps -- mythical creatures that until now have existed only in the imaginations of the Pooh characters. Apparently, Milne introduced the idea as a metaphor or symbol for all those things in life that frighten us. Even though none of the Pooh characters has ever actually seen a Heffalump, they are afraid of them nonetheless, convinced that the animals are both scary-looking and scary-acting.
Mistakenly believing that a Heffalump is about to invade their territory, Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), Tigger (also Cummings), Piglet (John Fiedler), Rabbit (Ken Sansom) and Eeyore (Peter Cullen) embark on an expedition to capture the creature. Baby Roo (voiced by child actor Nikita Hopkins) is considered too young to go on the hunt, but sneaks into Heffalump Hollow on his own. There he runs into Lumpy (child actor Kyle Stanger), a young Heffalump who isn't the least bit scary-looking or -acting. In fact, he and Roo are very much alike -- sweet, exuberant, kind and playful. The two become fast friends. It is now up to Roo to convince his other friends that their preconceptions and prejudices about Heffalumps are unfounded.
Pooh's Heffalump Movie succeeds in large measure because Roo and Lumpy are so adorable, a perfect marriage of line drawing and voice acting. Above all this is a testament to Hopkins and Stanger, who create indelible characters by the sheer expressiveness of their voices (Lumpy sports what sounds like an Australian accent). Children will have no trouble relating to the characters -- to the fun they are having, as well as to the pain they suddenly feel when they can't find their mothers. In fact, the only portion of the film that could be considered remotely frightful comes when Roo and Lumpy start feeling separation anxiety. Not to worry; everything turns out happily in the end.
Predictably, small children attending the preview laughed at the sillier, easier-to-appreciate antics, such as when Pooh tumbles off his bed and falls into the honey pot. And there was an audible "oh!" when the obviously friendly and unthreatening Lumpy is introduced and announces, "I'm a Heffalump." Singer-songwriter Carly Simon contributes the picture's musical numbers, none of which proves terribly memorable. For parents, that might be a good thing.
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