Thursday, August 14, 2008
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?