NOEL KING, HOST:
Winnie the Pooh is back on the big screen in Disney's live-action movie "Christopher Robin." Ewan McGregor plays Christopher all grown-up and with grown-up worries. But Pooh's voice sounds the same as it has for 50 years. Tim Greiving went to the Hundred Acre Wood to find that voice and to find out why it's so endearing.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WINNIE THE POOH AND THE HONEY TREE")
STERLING HOLLOWAY: (As Winnie the Pooh) I must be going now. Goodbye, Rabbit.
TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Winnie the Pooh ate his first honey on-screen in 1966. He was played by character actor Sterling Holloway who, well, pretty much spoke like that.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WINNIE THE POOH AND THE HONEY TREE")
HOLLOWAY: (As Winnie the Pooh) Ooh - ooh - oh, help and bother. I'm stuck.
JUNIUS MATTHEWS: (As Rabbit) Oh, dear.
GREIVING: Holloway only voiced Pooh three times. And when Disney brought the characters back in 1988 for the animated series "The New Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh," the actor was in his 80s and retired. Enter Jim Cummings.
JIM CUMMINGS: I was the kid that was in the back of the room, you know - (imitating dolphin squeaks) - doing dolphin noises. And Sister Mary Agnes (ph) was mighty nonplussed. She was like, we don't have dolphins here at St. Columba, Mr. Cummings.
GREIVING: Cummings grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. After high school, he moved to New Orleans, where he was a riverboat deckhand and a Mardi Gras float builder. Then, he was managing a video rental store in Anaheim, Calif., when he got his demo tape into the hands of veteran animator Don Bluth, who passed it along to a producer at Disney.
CUMMINGS: So I came up, and I auditioned for "Dumbo's Circus." And it was Lionel the Lion.
(As Lionel the Lion) And I was on "Dumbo's Circus."
And that was my first job.
GREIVING: Animated TV was having a heyday at the time. And pretty soon, Cummings was voicing characters in everything from "Adventures Of The Gummi Bears"...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURES OF THE GUMMI BEARS")
CUMMINGS: (As Zummi Gummi) Oh, no. Oh, no. Of course not, Cubbi. That's just a story.
GREIVING: ...To "Chip 'N' Dale: Rescue Rangers"...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHIP 'N' DALE: RESCUE RANGERS")
CUMMINGS: (As Monterey Jack) It's called static electricity, Dale.
GREIVING: ...To small parts in feature films, like "Aladdin."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALADDIN")
CUMMINGS: (As Razoul) You idiots, we've all got swords.
GREIVING: Over the years, he's been in hundreds of TV shows, films and videogames. But it's Winnie the Pooh who's given him the most mileage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MINI ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH")
CUMMINGS: (As Winnie the Pooh) I must be going now. Goodbye, Rabbit. Oh - oh - oh, help and bother.
GREIVING: Cummings says the directive was to hew as close as possible to Sterling Holloway's very particular voice for the iconic bear.
CUMMINGS: I love that Disney does that, by the way. And I think it provides, like, a continuity. It's almost comforting.
GREIVING: So what's in the voice?
CUMMINGS: (As Winnie the Pooh) Basically, Pooh is up here. And he's right at the bottom of my falsetto and right at the top of my tenor.
Pooh is a bear of very little brain, but yet his logic is pure. And it's sort of that serene, Zen approach to life. And I always say that Pooh is the eye of the hurricane because he's very, very calm. And Tigger is the hurricane.
GREIVING: Oh, yeah. Jim Cummings plays Tigger, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOO TO YOU TOO! WINNIE THE POOH")
CUMMINGS: (As Tigger, purring) Not late, am I? Didn't miss any - anything, did I? Halloween's what Tiggers like the best - ooh-ooh-hoo-hoo-hoo (ph).
GREIVING: When director Marc Forster brought Pooh and his pals back for the live-action film "Christopher Robin," he altered the design of these stuffed animals and changed some of the voices. But he didn't dare change Pooh's.
MARC FORSTER: I felt that he is sort of the centerpiece, the heart. You know, ultimately, Pooh, for me, because of the red sweater and everything is sort of metaphor of the heart. And I felt that he is the anchor of everything, that if we get him right, that I have a little bit of flexibility to use other voices for other characters.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTOPHER ROBIN")
EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Christopher Robin) Oh, God, the stress.
CUMMINGS: (As Winnie the Pooh) It's not stress.
MCGREGOR: (As Christopher Robin) God, I'm stressed.
CUMMINGS: (As Winnie the Pooh) Let's go.
MCGREGOR: (As Christopher Robin) I'm so exhausted. Madeline warned me.
CUMMINGS: (As Winnie the Pooh) I like to be warmed, warmed and cozy.
BILL FARMER: People know these characters. They're as recognizable as, say, an Arnold Schwarzenegger.
GREIVING: Bill Farmer has been working beside Jim Cummings in the studio since the '80s. Around the time Cummings took over Winnie the Pooh, Farmer took over another classic Disney character from the original actor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FARMER: (As Goofy) Gawrsh (ph), howdy.
GREIVING: Farmer says, like Pooh, he had to get Goofy just right.
FARMER: If the personality isn't in there and the voice isn't right, it's not Goofy to them. It's not Winnie the Pooh to them.
GREIVING: But, as Farmer says, it's not just doing a voice.
FARMER: There is a difference between imitating a character and inhabiting a character and becoming that character.
GREIVING: But what is it about Winnie the Pooh's trademark voice that we find so timelessly endearing and adorable? I asked Jim Cummings, Pooh himself.
CUMMINGS: Well, he's a teddy bear - literally a teddy bear. You want to hug him. You can't have a bad time when Pooh is around.
(As Winnie the Pooh) And he's as sweet as honey.
GREIVING: In a world that can often taste bitter, please pass the honey. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINNIE THE POOH")
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays...
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