Pooh astride Eeyore, Piglet astride Pooh.


Original Medium: Prose fiction
Published by: Methuen Publishing Ltd.
First Appeared: 1925
Creator: A.A. Milne
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They say Winnie the Pooh is the most beloved bear in the world. Maybe he is. He's certainly the most lucrative. The Walt Disney Company, which …

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… for several decades has been the principal benefactor of the wealth he generates, considers him its #1 cash cow — bigger, even, than Mickey Mouse himself, the company finally admitted in 1996. The silly old bear enriches Disney's coffers by an estimated one billion dollars per year. That's almost $2,000 every single minute, even when he's asleep.

He started as a teddy bear given by author Alan Alexander Milne to his son, Christopher Robin Milne, on the boy's first birthday. He was originally called Edward Bear, but it was under the name Winnie-the-Pooh that he starred in a story Milne wrote in 1925, titled "In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin". The story was published in the December 24, 1925 edition of The London Evening News. The following year, Methuen Publishing Ltd. put it out in book form, along with nine more Pooh stories, under the more succinct title Winnie-the-Pooh. E.P. Dutton & Co. published the book in America.

Winnie-the-Pooh and its 1928 sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, were illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, whose contribution to the Pooh oeuvre was considered as important to the work as that of artist W.W. Denslow to the Wizard of Oz (only tenuously related), or John Tenniel to Alice in Wonderland. The look he gave Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood contributed greatly to the effect the books had on the English-speaking world — which was to capture the hearts of generations. Shepard was also a prominent illustrator of (among others) The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, but is best remembered as the illustrator of Pooh.

In 1929, Milne sold the Pooh merchandising rights to an American promoter named Stephen Slesinger. It was only one of many properties Slesinger managed, and during his lifetime, not even the biggest — that would probably be the Red Ryder comic strip, which he placed in movies, on radio and elsewhere. Slesinger died in 1953, and his widow inherited the operation. Shirley Slesinger signed with Disney in 1961, and that's when Winnie the Pooh (without hyphens) began making his fortune.

Disney's first Pooh cartoon was Winnie the Pooh & the Honey Tree, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman (who was directing most of Disney's animated features at the time) and released on February 4, 1966. Sebastian Cabot was the narrator, with (among others) Sterling Holloway (Sugar Bear in commercials but not in Linus the Lionhearted) as the voice of Pooh, Ralph Wright (Gay Purr-ee) as Eeyore, and Hal Smith (Gyro Gearloose in DuckTales) as Owl.

It made a reasonable hit with audiences, but was criticized for not being true to the Pooh look and feel — especially in replacing Pooh's friend Piglet with a Gopher (voiced by Howard Morris (Atom Ant)), and giving everyone an American accent. In fact, no less a critic than E.H. Shepard himself, who had created the original Pooh look, called it "a complete travesty".

A British-sounding voice was dubbed in for Christopher Robin, at least. Piglet was restored in the second film, Winnie the Pooh & the Blustery Day (Reitherman, 1968) — which, by the way, took home an Academy Award. But devotees of the original Pooh stories still grumble from time to time over the way the Disney Version, which doesn't look exactly like Shepard's drawings, dominates the public image of Pooh. And Gopher continues as a separate character.

Nonetheless, more cartoon shorts followed, all in the Disney style — accompanied by the usual flood of products based on the character and his friends. In 1972, he followed in the footsteps of A. Mutt, Andy Gump and Betty Boop, and ran for president — and Disneyland has done a "Pooh for President" promotion in every election year since. In 1977, Disney gathered the shorts together and released them as a feature, titled The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Many more Pooh features followed. Most appeared first on TV or were released straight to video, but in 2000, The Tigger Movie, with Jim Cummings (Darkwing Duck, Taz) playing both the title role and Pooh himself, became the first original Pooh feature released to theatres.

Gold Key published a comic book version from 1977-84. King Features did a newspaper strip version from 1978-87. The Disney Channel did Welcome to Pooh Corner as a live-action series, from 1983-95. In 1988, the cable station launched the animated New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, with Cummings as Pooh, Paul Winchell (Gargamel in Smurfs) as Tigger and Peter Cullen (Hagar the Horrible in a 1989 TV special) as Eeyore. The following year, it moved to ABC. Later, it was merged with Gummi Bears to form an hour-long show, but was de-merged a year later. It remained in production until 1993, winning two Emmy Awards as Outstanding Animated Program. A puppet version of Pooh is currently in the works. And the flood of Pooh products — from clothing and jewelry to beach blankets and coffee mugs — has only gotten bigger over the years.

In 1991, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell (since signing with Disney, she'd married cartoonist Fred Lasswell (Snuffy Smith)) filed suit against Disney, alleging various contract violations and tens of millions in under-reported income. The dispute has heated up in recent years, a dramatic highlight occurring in 2001, when it came out that Disney had routinely shredded thousands of relevant documents, some in boxes labeled "Winnie the Pooh legal problems". More recently, Disney has teamed up with descendants of Milne and Shepard in an effort to use 1998 changes in U.S. copyright law to wrest the property completely away from Lasswell. So far, the attempt seems to have failed.

Even a cursory look into the legal shenanigans tells a very sordid story — whatever the rights or wrongs, neither side has covered itself with glory. Which may not seem appropriate for actions connected with the world's most beloved bear, but is perfectly in keeping with the world's most lucrative one.


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Text ©2002-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The Walt Disney Company.