Fyodor Khitruk, “Vinni Pukh” (1969) / “Vinni Pukh idyot v gosti” (1972) / “Vinni Pukh i den’ zabot” (1972)
My favourite cartoon featuring Winnie the Pooh as main character is a shortie that comes in several versions on Youtube in which he worships Satan in front of a mirror and comes to be possessed by a daemon while working out (yes, his head turns right around a few times and then some) and then trying to retrieve a pot of dog blood from a cupboard. After that, the next best thing is three Russian-language cartoons about Pooh and his pals directed by animator Fyodor Khitruk in the early 1970s. Featuring quite simple and child-like animation – the backgrounds are often scribbled with coloured pencil and are very minimal and abstract – and with characters that don’t resemble their originals or their Disney equivalents much (Pukh in particular looks like a fat sunburnt panda), these cartoons trot along at a brisk pace and have clever little scenarios in which Pukh, voiced by Yevgeny Leonov, bumbles along officiously, gets into trouble but manages to talk himself out of strife. The plots usually involve some conflict between Pukh and a third party through which Pukh tries to reach his precious pot of honey.
Pukh is a fast-talking and actually quite manipulative little bruin in the three cartoons based on the some of the original stories by A A Milne. In the 1969 cartoon, he and Piglet (voice: Iya Savina) try to get honey down from the top of a tree; in “… idyot v gosti”, they visit Rabbit and eat him almost out of house and home; in “… i den’ zabot”, they try to cheer up Eeyore on his birthday by getting him presents and on the way discover his lost tail. Of the three cartoons, the second one has the most charm as Pukh brings down the snooty Rabbit in the way he finishes off his host’s food and demolishes part of Rabbit’s home. There’s probably a lesson there about how visitors are supposed to behave when visiting friends and how hosts should be friendly and at the same time evict those guests who have overstayed their welcome. Piglet is a major character, equally as fast in conversation as Pukh, and their banter is lively and full of sparkle. The silly songs that Pukh sings reveal his cheeky character which comes out in full up against the frosty know-all Rabbit.
The third cartoon is quite a long one and complex, even dark, in its story and characterisation: Eeyore suffers depression major enough to get viewers all teary and depressed, Piglet endeavours to get a balloon for him but the balloon bursts and Owl is a pompous old bird-brain whom Pukh has to trick into handing over Eeyore’s lost tail. There are moments when you seriously wonder whether Pukh and Piglet can get their act together enough to cheer up Eeyore and recover his tail before he drowns himself in the pond. Plenty of wit and cheek abound on Pukh’s part – the verbal ping-pong between him and Owl that leads to Owl sneezing is inspired – and everything ends well on a carefree and reconciliatory note.
Characterisation and the animation style are the strongest points of the three films: Pukh is sly and bursting with attitude and Piglet as his faithful shadow is eager and up for any adventure and usefulness that comes into Pukh’s head; their friendship is full of spirit and verve. The animation is deliberately simple, colourful with lots of empty sky and backgrounds, and a distinct two-dimensional look with no attempt to make Pukh look fat and bulky in three dimensions. Landscapes and quaint, earthy houses have a feathery or furry look that comes with using coloured pencils to shade or cross-hatch spaces and the characters often look pasted onto the static backgrounds as they walk or run across them. Houses, house interiors and bunches of forest often have a lot of detail and depth that can be missed. The result is not only easy on the eye but is sometimes quite surreal, beautiful and charming in a child-like way.
These shorts are worth watching even if you know the A A Milne stories and have seen the Disney animations as they have an individual style and portray the characters as intelligent, straightforward and lively without any forced sentimentality and emotion. Spirited songs and music and jokes add to the charm of the cartoons.