Look at this picture. Can you name these animals?
The title of this post is probably a dead giveaway, but that's our old friends Pooh and Piglet! Between 1969 and 1972, animator Fyodor Khitruk directed three Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons in his native Russia. Today we're going to look at the first one (which I'm calling by its Russian name for the purposes of reducing confusion.)
I first saw "Vinni Puh" in college in 2005 or so - one of my earliest YouTube discoveries. It was an important moment in my development as an animation fan, because it forced me to consider how different approaches can alter material. Before I saw this cartoon, I knew the names of various animation directors (mostly WB guys like Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett), but I'd never really considered what they actually brought to the table.
Then I saw "Vinni Puh," which is a lot like visiting your parents in their new house. It's completely different from what I know, but everything about it feels familiar.
Like the first half of Disney's "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree," (directed by Wolfgang Reitherman) "Vinni Puh" is an adaptation of the first chapter of A. A. Milne's book Winnie-the-Pooh (delightfully entitled "In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees and the Stories Begin"). Unlike that short, its character designs don't hew to E.H. Shepard's illustrations at all.
Disney put Pooh in a red shirt, but other than that he's basically the same yellow bear that Shepard designed. Khitruk's Puh is an entirely different (stuffed) animal - dark brown body with even darker ears, nose, and limbs. He's also much fatter than Shepard's or Disney's Pooh. Those versions have round bellies - this one essentially is a round belly, clomping along through the Hundred Acre Wood on tiny feet that disconnect from his body when he walks.
Piglet - the only other character featured in this cartoon - is also radically altered, with a bulbous head, tiny neck, and equally round torso forming an hourglass figure. He wears what appear to be checkered blue swimming trunks, and one of his ears hangs lower than the other.
That low-hanging ear of Piglet's twitches when he walks. This effect - combined with the bouncy way he moves - communicates the character's nervous energy just as well as his excited scurry in the Disney cartoons. Despite all of the visual changes, the two characters are still recognizably Winnie the Pooh and his pal Piglet.
All of that said, "Vinni Puh" is faster and (in many ways) funnier than "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree." When Pooh decides to roll around in the mud, he dives in head-first, arching high into the air before sinking completely into the mud pit and finally reemerging in full Rain Cloud Mode. Stylized, exaggerated movements such as that give the film a quickness that's markedly different from Disney's more wistful version.
I wouldn't say that I prefer this film to the, as they say, Disney version. That short and its follow-ups have a permanent residence in my heart for as long as I'm alive. Mostly I'm just glad that both takes exist - that Winnie-the-Pooh is a character strong enough to be interpreted multiple ways and come through with his hungry, quizzical head held high.