The Eeyore ProblemJuly 17, 2011
A new Winnie-the-Pooh movie opened this weekend to remarkably high reviews (currently, 91% on Rotten Tomatoes). I have no doubt the movie is well-made, heart-warming, and generally far better than a number of the current alternatives. However, no matter how high the reviews or how postive the word-of-mouth, I’m already somewhat soured on it, because if the trailer is any indication, this new movie is yet another Winnie-the-Pooh adaptation that completely misses the mark with Eeyore.
(Now, if the movie only missed on Eeyore, that’s something of a win, considering that the late ’80s adaptation, The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, completely bastardized every single character — for proof, look no further than that abomination of a theme song. And don’t defend it because it’s “nostalgic.” Just because something’s nostalgic doesn’t automatically make it good. I’m looking at you, Princess Bride. Boy, this whole Eeyore thing’s got me more fired up than I thought.)
Here’s an exchange from the new Winnie the Pooh trailer:
Pooh thinks Owl is sneezing, mistaking “issue” for “ah-choo.”
Pooh (to Owl): “You must be catching a cold.”
Eeyore: “I’ll probably catch it too.”
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this exchange. In A. A. Milne’s books, Eeyore is saying depressing things all the time. The problem with the exchange from the trailer, and with every later adaptation of Eeyore, isn’t what is said, but what is left out. Adaptation Eeyore is one-dimensional — just a sad sack that needs a little cheering up. Adaptation Eeyore just needs a little love. And once someone succeeds in breaking through his prickly outer shell, Adaptation Eeyore invariably looks something like this:
Now, excuse me while I go make a vomit.
Okay, I’m back. Let’s resume things with a little exercise. Compare the Disney-fied Eeyore with the image at the top of this post, an Ernest Shepard illustration from Milne’s book. I trust you’ve detected a handful of slight differences.
So what went wrong? How did we get from Milne’s (and Shepard’s) original vision of Eeyore to that . . . thing?
The answer is actually quite simple — in A. A. Milne’s books, Eeyore spends most of the time acting like a royal ass. Not depressing yet deceptively cute. Not curmudgeonly yet secretly cuddly. Not emo. Just a big ass.
Disney had a marketing problem.
In Milne’s books, Eeyore doesn’t just say depressing things to be depressing. He says depressing things to prove his superiority. He views himself as surrounded by creatures of lesser intelligence — heads literally full of stuffing — creatures so stupid that they are unable to notice the most basic instances of suffering around them. Eeyore is constantly bringing up slights, both real and imagined, because he things everyone else is too stupid to take notice. In fact, Eeyore is so arrogant, he spends good portions of dialogue seemingly conversing with himself, the implication being that everyone else is too dense to pick up on his nuanced train of thought.
Consider this passage from Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh in which Christopher Robin and company pause an
Expotition expedition for lunch.
“Have you all got something?” asked Christopher Robin with his mouth full.
“All except me,” said Eeyore. “As Usual.” He looked round at them in his melancholy way. “I suppose none of you are sitting on a thistle by any chance?”
“I believe I am,” said Pooh. “Ow!” He got up, and looked behind him. “Yes, I was. I thought so.”
“Thank you, Pooh. If you’ve quite finished with it.” He moved across to Pooh’s place, and began to eat.
“It don’t do them any Good, you know, sitting on them,” he went on, as he looked up munching. “Takes all the Life out of them. Remember that another time, all of you. A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.”
See? Eeyore really is a condescending B-hole. No wonder, in Shepard’s illustration, the expedition party marches on while leaving Eeyore behind. Who can blame them? But here’s the key — Eeyore, in Milne’s books, isn’t just a B-hole. If her were, he would be just as one-dimensional as Adaptation Eeyore, only in a decidedly darker manner.
Milne’s Eeyore, like any great character, is multi-layered, capable of surprising the reader at any moment.
For example, in perhaps the most well-known Eeyore story, he begins the day by informing Pooh that it’s his birthday. Ever playing the martyr, he says that no one remembered, but it’s okay because cake and icing and merriment aren’t for everyone.
So far, typical Eeyore.
Pooh, of course, feels horrible and rushes home to get Eeyore a birthday present. He selects a pot of honey, but on the way to deliver it, he forgets who the honey was for and licks the jar clean. Piglet, meanwhile, chooses a big red balloon for Eeyore, but as he hurries to deliver it, he stumbles and falls and pops the balloon.
Piglet gives his “gift” — the shredded balloon fragment — first. Eeyore asks what color it was, when it was a balloon. Piglet says red, and, of course, Eeyore sadly says that red is his favorite color. Again the martyr. Pooh gives his gift next — the empty honey pot. This is the perfect opportunity for Eeyore to once again lecture Pooh, to point out — in his usual roundabout way — how selfish and inconsiderate it is to consume the gift you’re giving to someone.
But something else happens. Eeyore appears excited. He notices that the balloon fits into the pot — not something an inflated balloon could do — and he takes pride that his balloon is able to do so. Without a trace of irony, Eeyore spends the rest of the afternoon taking the balloon out of the pot and putting it back in “as happy as could be.”
It’s a brilliant moment — completely unexpected and genuinely moving.
And none of it would be possible if Eeyore wasn’t such an ass in the first place.