Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Strange Case of Winnie-the-Pooh


Winnie-the-Pooh is probably one of the most widely recognized fictional characters in the world, right up there with Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Darth Vader. He is also an icon of English children's literature. The bear of very little brain made his debut in 1926 in the eponymous Winnie-the-Pooh, written by A.A. Milne and loosely based on the stuffed toys of his own son, Christopher Robin, a fictitious version of whom appears as the only human character. The stories of Pooh and his friends in that volume (and its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner) proved phenomenally successful, receiving great acclaim throughout the English speaking world.

So great was the success that, in 1930, an American by the name of Stephen Slesinger purchased the US and Canadian merchandising rights to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories and characters for $1000 (approximately $12,000 today) and a promise of two-thirds of the proceeds. Until his death in 1953, Slesinger marketed Pooh relentlessly, selling toys, games, books, puzzles, and records. He is also responsible for the "red-shirted" version of Winnie-the-Pooh that most people now associate with the character. By 1938, Pooh merchandise was making over $50 million a year and, in the process, laying the groundwork for the licensing industry that now dominates most creative endeavors.

Slesinger died in 1953, but his widow, Shirley, continued to market Pooh until 1961, when she sold the licensing to the Walt Disney Company. Five years later, Disney released the first of three short films starring Pooh and his friends, all of which were combined and released as a single feature in 1977. While these films are fairly close adaptations of the Milne stories, there are differences, chief among them being the introduction of a new character, Gopher (in full, Samuel J. Gopher), not found in the original tales. At the time of his introduction, there was an uproar about the insertion not just of a new character but one that did not "fit" into the presumed English setting of the stories, as gophers are not found in England. Likewise, gopher is a purely comedic character, whose whistling voice and slapstick behavior is quite different than the almost meditative humor of the actual Milne characters.

Since 1977, Disney has continued to develop the Winnie-the-Pooh characters and stories, turning them into a franchise of remarkable staying power. There have been four television series and almost a dozen movies. Naturally, the content of these shows and movies has been almost entirely original, written by Disney rather than deriving from Milne's own works. Many new characters have been introduced, such as the heffalump Lumpy, Kessie the bluebird, and, most recently, Darby, a six year-old girl who seems to have usurped the traditional role of Christopher Robin as Pooh's only human friend and confidante. Pooh appeared, alongside many other cartoon characters (such as Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield) in a 1990 anti-drug film entitled Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. He has also appeared as one of 100 Disney characters in the Final Fantasy-related video game Kingdom Hearts.

There can be no question that Winnie-the-Pooh is simultaneously a much beloved children's character throughout the world and a highly successful merchandising franchise. Most children -- most adults -- only know the character through the Disney version of him, having never read the original stories from which he and his friends come. Had it not been for Stephen Slesinger and Disney, it's quite likely Pooh would be largely unknown today, like many other fictional characters popular in their day but that subsequently failed the test of time, but who can say for certain?

14 comments:

  1. All very interesting, of course. But what brings this up here and now?

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  2. All very interesting, of course. But what brings this up here and now?

    Perhaps I am too subtle.

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  3. "Who can say for certain?" Indeed we shouldn't presume to know what would have happened, either way.

    But I agree with what I think is the subtext of your article. In the 20th century, intellectual property was transformed from a kind of social engineering, or tool by which society encouraged and rewarded creators of "culture", into the dominant mode of culture itself, captured in perpetuity by impersonal entities which are legally bound to exploit the culture they "own" for maximal profit, without any other consideration.

    No one would have made Gamma World D20, not in the form that it was made, if it weren't for this cultural regime. I also doubt that the name "D&D" would have become a trademark divorced from the goals, intentions, and aesthetics of its creators, as it increasingly became from the mid-80's onwards.

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  4. What's more, many 20th century works may never enter the public domain, at least in the US. An effective war has been waged by the major IP holders to extend copyrights by decades, and perhaps ultimately in perpetuity.

    We should all be very glad that the OGL allows us some freedom to preserve and use much of the IP of old school games, no matter how coy we have to be about it.

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  5. There's actually a somewhat subtle in-joke contained in gopher's signature line.

    "I'm not in the book!"

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  6. There's actually a somewhat subtle in-joke contained in gopher's signature line.

    Indeed there is and that's the unfortunate thing about all this: no single change or "evolution" to a concept is enough to tilt the balance one way or another. As I said, the first three Disney films are quite faithful adaptations in most respects (though they're a fair bit "softer" than the Milne originals). Gopher is a small blemish and it's clear Disney understood just what they were doing. But once they made those changes, the door was opened and could never again be closed and it was inevitable that, one day, Pooh would team up with Barbara Bush to fight against the Demon Weed.

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  7. I also doubt that the name "D&D" would have become a trademark divorced from the goals, intentions, and aesthetics of its creators, as it increasingly became from the mid-80's onwards.

    Now there's an alternate reality I'd love to inhabit for a brief time. But it'd be a very different world, one without AD&D most likely, as its appearance was at least partially motivated the kind of thinking that eventually gave us 4e.

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  8. We should all be very glad that the OGL allows us some freedom to preserve and use much of the IP of old school games, no matter how coy we have to be about it.

    However much I may despise what WotC has done with D&D in recent years, I shall always thank them -- and Ryan Dancey and Peter Adkison in particular -- for the role they played in granting the D&D I know and love immortality.

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  9. "The Hundred Acre Wood" is a demi-plane level I've sketched as part of my version of Castle Greyhawk, but never gotten around to detailing in full. I think you may have pushed me over the edge to doing that detail work, a la EX1 and EX2, James :D

    Allan.

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  10. "The Hundred Acre Wood" is a demi-plane level I've sketched as part of my version of Castle Greyhawk, but never gotten around to detailing in full. I think you may have pushed me over the edge to doing that detail work.

    That is fantastic Allan! I'd give up a jar of honey to see that.

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  11. "At the time of his introduction, there was an uproar about the insertion not just of a new character but one that did not "fit" into the presumed English setting of the stories, as gophers are not found in England"

    I was unaware the Kangaroos and Tiggers were native to the British Isles.

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  12. I was unaware the Kangaroos and Tiggers were native to the British Isles.

    I'm only telling you what I remember reading from a book a few years ago. I don't think the criticism level against Gopher needs to make sense, only that people saw the character as an interloper who didn't belong. That they grasped at an implausible justification for their visceral dislike of Gopher suggests to me Disney misread the level of passion Pooh elicited among some people.

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  13. I was unaware the Kangaroos and Tiggers were native to the British Isles.

    Undoubtedly there's already a grand exegesis explaining how this is a grand allegory of the British Empire...

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  14. Maybe not an exegesis per se, but there is a book called The Tao of Pooh, which has several semi-serious essays on the yellow ursine buddha & friends.

    I've noticed here in VN, Pooh is widely recognized and just as ubiquitous on merchandise but totally divorced from any cartoon or books. Since all the stuff is pirated anyways, it's also divorced from the corporate IP profit mill. Similarly, a Korean kid came into my class last year with a T-shirt sporting a Willingham sketch from the old Expert rulebook (the guy blowing the horn). I mentioned D&D and he just looked bewildered and said 'No, No. Korean pop'. What a wonderful world!

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