Eeyore must've been predicting the future when he uttered that famous line, which seems incredibly appropriate in describing my feelings about "A Bear Named Winnie," a production by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that debuted on television in December, 2004 and is currently playing at the Heartland Film Festival as one of its Crystal Heart Award Winners.
As a longtime Winnie the Pooh fan, I was incredibly excited about this film. "A Bear Named Winnie" follows the adventure of a Canadian soldier who adopts an orphaned bear cub. The bear is named Winnipeg ("Winnie" for short), and the incredibly domesticated bear ends up at the London Zoo when the soldier is called to the front lines. At the London Zoo, the bear eventually becomes the inspiration for "Winnie the Pooh."
The film, an independent production, was made without cooperation by Disney or the Milne family, and great care was made to make sure that the words "Winnie the Pooh" were never uttered, though the closing scenes do include very clear references to Pooh.
The film was initially scheduled to play the Heartland Film Festival on Friday night, however, technical difficulties interfered. Despite the fact that the film has previously been played publicly in Canada, the film seems to be plagued by technical challenges ranging from poor, awkward editing to significant glitches at the end of the film.
John Kent Harrison, whose primary background is in TV film direction, seems content to rely on the bear to be charming, funny and adorable. The bear is, in fact, the highlight of the film...yet, the bear doesn't resemble Pooh, doesn't have the same cuddly qualities and,while it's incredibly adorable and well trained, the audience is never given a chance to really connect the bear to the background story.
The film stars Michael Fassbender as the aforementioned soldier, and Fassbender plays the part adequately but, once again, buying into the relationship he has with this bear is nearly impossible. The supporting roles suffer the same fate, and the entire cast seems largely devoid of emotion. Gil Bellows is swallowed up by his role as a Colonel Barret, along with Stephen Fry and the rest of the cast with the exception of Ted Atherton, who does a nice, quiet portrayal of Fassbender's loyal friend, Captain Elliott.
The film, which won an editing award in Canada, is woefully edited in the version seen at Heartland. Odd slicing and at least 3 slow-motion camera shots were jarring and distracting. Likewise, any scenes of action involving Fassbender with the bear were shot so closely that the shot seemed crowded and too busy to allow for an emotional connection to the scenery.
The film's script is basic, the direction bland and there's nothing unique about the production design itself.
On a certain level, "A Bear Named Winnie" works. The bear is quite wonderful to watch, and Fassbender's scenes with the bear are beautiful to behold. Yet, even though I didn't know this film's origins prior to seeing it, I constantly felt like I was watching a TV movie. While I certainly don't require films I see to be dramatic or spectacular, I do require a film that creates some sort of connection with me...physically, spiritually, emotionally...something. Despite truly beloved source material, "A Bear Named Winnie" never truly connects. Perhaps most attributable to lazy direction, "A Bear Named Winnie" takes one of the most beloved children's characters and makes me wonder "Why Bother?"