Arriving as it does in an era of CG-animated 3D excess, Winnie the Pooh feels like quite a throwback. With its hand-drawn scenes, this movie would have felt perfectly at home in the late '60s, when Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day appeared. That isn't intended as a criticism but an observation; it's refreshing and invigorating to watch a new animated picture where we can still see the penciled-in sketches of the characters' eyebrows and wind-ruffled clothing, for example. Thanks to the detail in the environments, not a moment passes where one forgets the painstaking care and love that must have gone into every scene. Neither the original Pooh director (Wolfgang Reitherman) nor the original actor who voiced Winnie (Sterling Holloway) are still with us, but the creators have done everything they can to make us forget this, including using a lead voice actor (Jim Cummings) who sounds identical to Holloway.
Many of the onscreen events are lifted verbatim from earlier Winnie outings, and that's both an asset and a liability. It's a positive in the sense that fans will respond favorably to the charm of familiar character tropes, such as Eeyore searching for his tail and Winnie looking obsessively for honey. It's a drawback because the central story -- in which the gang believes that an imaginary creature called a Backson is out to get them -- has already been done before (most recently in Pooh's Heffalump Movie from 2005). One senses that the creators were afraid to take a risk by actually using their imagination to construct a new tale for the Hundred Acre Wood animals, and that conservative attitude does not pay off; narratively, they're merely treading water with this, and older A.A. Milne fans will find it uninspired.
Of course, on a commercial level that may not matter, because kids between the ages of about three and seven aren't bothered by overfamiliarities, and it seems designed largely for this age bracket anyway. It's difficult to imagine small fries responding unenthusiastically to the periodic gags and the Backson pursuit. The material is also completely appropriate for young viewers. Only one sequence that finds the characters aping soldiers (which turns familiar woodland objects such as a pinecone into weapons) feels seriously out of synch with the tone of the franchise; mercifully, it only lasts about 30 seconds.
In one of the picture's few concessions to contemporary sensibilities, the creators did up the slapstick quotient. The earlier Pooh outings were gentler, mellower entertainments; this one is a bit crazier and less restrained, as in a frenetic bout involving Tigger (Cummings) and Eeyore (Bud Luckey). But much of it is still funny, lively, and (with the exception of that one military sequence) endearing. The film grows even more amiable thanks to the soundtrack presence of Zooey Deschanel, who performs the Sherman Brothers' "Winnie the Pooh" at the outset, a jaunty pop song over the end credits, and some melodic vocal accompaniments to the action in mid-film -- all of which help offset bland additional tunes by Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Whatever the picture's lapses, it was a brilliant move to bring Deschanel in as a musical performer; her warm, nurturing, and maternal voice reinforces the sweetness that has made the entire Pooh franchise so lovely, and contributes to the overwhelming coziness that the movie generates.