In the lore of Winnie the Pooh there are two distinct traditions: The timeless tales written by A.A. Milne for his son, Christopher Robin, and the Disneyfied cartoons. The look of Pooh even varies from one to the other.
For its latest preschool-aged series, Disney turned to children's television veteran Mitchell Kriegman ("Clarissa Explains It All," "Bear in the Big Blue House") to reinvent Pooh in another form. "The Book of Pooh" follows after the popular animated series "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh."
"The goal was to go down to the root of Pooh and bring it to blossom again in some new way," Kriegman said in a telephone interview last month. "I wanted to look at Milne and Disney Pooh as a whole and draw on the strongest elements of both."
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"The Book of Pooh"
When: 7:30 and 10 a.m. daily; bonus airing tomorrow at 7 and 7:30 p.m.
Starring: The voices of Jim Cummings, John Fiedler, Ken Sansom, Peter Cullen
Rather than repeating the Disney animated series, Kriegman set out to bring Pooh alive using puppets.
"What could be more true to the origins of Pooh than to bring a stuffed animal to life?" Kriegman said. "When Milne wrote him, Pooh was a stuffed animal come to life, and so the question then became if you're going to do it through puppetry, how does Tigger bounce? If it's a hand going up and down, it ain't gonna work."
So Kriegman decided to try an ambitious form of 300-year-old Japanese puppetry called Bunraku. Each puppet is operated by four puppeteers, who manipulate the puppets in choreographed movements.
To create backgrounds such as the ever-present Hundred Acre Wood, Kriegman turned to a decidedly modern art form: real-time computer animation. The puppeteers perform in front of a green screen (similar to local TV weathercasters who stand in front of a green screen when giving their forecasts) while wearing green body suits that allow them to disappear when the computer-animated virtual sets replace the green background.
"[We're] taking virtual sets to a place that even PlayStation doesn't do," Kriegman said. "My son, who's 8-years-old, I didn't expect to love 'Pooh.' He grew up on 'Bear.' When I said, 'What do you think [of 'Book of Pooh']?' He said, 'It's good. It's 3-D.'"
In addition to an innovative look for "Book of Pooh," Kriegman made only a few adjustments to the classic characters.
"It is such a great creative group of characters and stories that it really reads differently in every decade," he said. "Whereas once Eeyore seemed nihilistic and mopey, now he just seems pragmatic."
The one addition Kriegman made was to introduce a strong female character ("Kanga is pretty much June Cleaver," he said), something he felt was missing from past versions.
"We introduced Kessie the bluebird," Kriegman said. "She did exist in the cartoon series. She had two appearances. It was a chance to add something to the group in a way that didn't mess with the core dynamic of the relationships."
He described Piglet as a "kid advocate. Piglet is such a rooting position for kids. He's the smallest animal in the woods, and isn't that true for every kid? But we want to go a little further into Piglet's feelings. We don't just want to look at him as a worry wart. We embraced the characters and really developed them while remaining true to the level of humor and softness and light and fluff that everyone loves."
Kriegman has some experience with updating established characters. He wrote the screenplay for "Elmo in Grouchland," which took the "Sesame Street" character from the TV show to the big screen. With "Clarissa" and "Bear," Kriegman created characters that became classic among their young viewers, "but to take on something people know and create something new with something you know is a big accomplishment, especially since it's so cutting edge with the technology and style."
Kriegman, who was once a writer for "Saturday Night Live," said he likes writing for children's television for a simple reason: "When I was a kid, 'Bugs Bunny' was for kids and 'Donna Reed' was for adults and that seemed backwards to me. 'Bugs Bunny' was incredibly sophisticated and kind of subversive."
There's probably not much subversion going on in "Book of Pooh," but Kriegman strives for sophistication, particularly when it comes to instilling a sense of curiosity about learning in the show's young viewers. In one episode nothing's happening in the Hundred Acre Wood, so the characters ask Mr. Narrator to make up a story. He does, but he makes Pooh bounce and Tigger eat honey, much to the consternation of the characters who protest the changes.
"As entertaining as the idea is, it's all about what is story? What are the characters and what do they do?" Kriegman said. "We work to weave into the show a real love of learning that goes from a love of books and watching characters in books to learning to read and other kinds of literary functions like lists, schedules, calendars, maps and reading and its value."
You can reach Rob Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.