Admittedly, it was a victory for those precious few who still believe that fiction should be in the hands of the public—as opposed to an ever shrinking collection of media conglomerates—when A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2022. That book, which was first published in 1926, introduced the world to Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, and the other members of the Hundred Acre gang. However, as a literary creation, that collection of stories was also limited (or liberated) by a child’s imagination. There were illustrations, of course, by artist E.H. Shepard, however the text presented a gentle, pastoral image intended to set children’s mind aflutter. It would be years before there was any merchandise created to cash-in and shape those same kids’ mental image of Pooh.
Our modern conception of the character didn’t really exist until at least 1932. That was the year American businessman Stephen Slesinger introduced the world to drawings (and later toys) of Winnie-the-Pooh in a red shirt and without pants. Before then, the character had always been illustrated with no human clothes at all. Slesinger was able to create this look because two years earlier, Milne sold the merchandising rights of Winnie-the-Pooh to Slesinger, effectively creating the modern licensing industry. And after his death, Slesinger’s widow continued the trend when she licensed those same rights to Walt Disney Productions in 1961.
Hence the first of Disney’s near countless Winnie the Pooh films and cartoons: the 1966 short film “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree.” Incidentally, this was the first creative project where Disney dropped the hyphens in Winnie the Pooh’s name, as well as where the Sherman Brothers’ “Winnie the Pooh” song was introduced to millions of children around the world.
As of 2022, a red-shirted and pants-less Winnie the Pooh, as well as the song and countless other aspects to the character’s pop culture iconography, remain copyrighted by Disney and Milne’s descendants. One imagines so does the tenor of Pooh’s voice, which, ever since Sterling Holloway voiced the character in ’66, has had an unmistakably distinct cadence.
Hence why we hear no “does Christopher Robin have some honey?” in the new Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey trailer. It’s more than likely also the reason writer-director Rhys Waterfield and his producers felt it prudent to maintain Milne’s original hyphenated “Winnie-the-Pooh” name for their title (although if you look at the poster, they try to minimize that too).
With that said, one wonders if Disney is looking awfully hard at that red plaid shirt that “Pooh Bear” is bathing in blood…