BOOTLEG FILES 321: “Vinni-Pukh” (three Soviet cartoons based on the A.A. Milne “Winnie the Pooh” series).
LAST SEEN: Available at several online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unauthorized film versions of copyrighted stories.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nyet.
In 1967, the leadership of the Soviet Union decided to allow A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” stories to be published for Russian readership. It was never quite clear why the Kremlin previously forbid these benign, non-political tales from reaching the little Russkies. However, it is hard to imagine that the Communist leadership were sitting on a commercial bonanza with their Russian translations.
When “Winnie the Pooh” (renamed “Vinni-Pukh”) hit the Soviet bookstores, it created an unprecedented sensation that was noticed on the free side of the Iron Curtain. A September 1967 edition of Life Magazine noted that 358,000 copies in the first print run were quickly snapped up, and children wrote to bookstores asking for more editions to be made available. The Life coverage also tracked down adults who professed to be charmed by Milne characters and their delightful view of the world.
Not surprisingly, the Soviets decided that their new best-seller deserved big screen treatment. Alas, that dreaded capitalist Walt Disney had already snapped up the screen rights to the Milne stories and characters. Thus, the Soviets decided to follow the example of their neighbors in Turkey and create their own unauthorized versions of the beloved source material.
But unlike the haphazard and ridiculous efforts of Turkish ripoff cinema, the Soviet “Vinni-Pukh” cartoon series is actually a remarkable surprise. The approach to the subject is very different from the Disney “Winnie the Pooh” series in both style and personality, yet the three cartoon shorts created by Soyuzmultfilm animators are entertaining and compelling.
The first cartoon in the series, the 1969 “Vinni-Pukh,” gets off to a fast start. The cartoon’s opening credits and background design have the bright but slightly sloppy crayon artwork that one associates with enthusiastic children. The cartoon’s characters have a visual sparseness that calls to mind the best of the 1950s UPA cartoons.
But when Vinni-Pukh shows up, you realize that you’re nowhere near Disneyland. Looking very much like a dwarf panda that spent too much time at the tanning salon, the character bears no resemblance at all to either its Disney counterpart or the E.H. Shepard drawings from the Milne books. Vinni-Pukh comes stomping over a hill, trying to remember the lines of a poem. He abruptly stops and looks directly at the viewer with confusion, as if he was wondering why we’re watching him. He then proceeds on his way, mumbling in a gravelly voice.
The focus of this cartoon finds Vinni-Pukh recruiting Piglet (who is dressed in blue-and-white checkered pants that come up to his chest) in a scheme to steal honey from a beehive located high on a tree. Unlike the good-natured bumbler from the Disney cartoon, this honey-happy bear is a manipulative, abrasive, self-indulgent schemer who is clearly unapologetic in his larcenous adventure. Piglet is no great help in his plans – when asked to blow up a balloon, Piglet somehow winds up inflating himself to balloon-size proportions.
The failure of Vinni-Pukh’s effort to steal the honey is aided by the appearance of genuinely weird bees: black-and-yellow fuzzballs whose angry eyes are twice the size of their bodies! Strangely, the cartoon ends with Vinni-Pukh and Piglet walking off into the horizon while a narrator promises more adventures with additional characters – a promise that causes the bear and wee pig to stop and look directly at the viewer with surprise, as if they were caught off-guard in hearing that more was expected of them.
Soyuzmultfilm, however, didn’t return to the property until 1971, with “Vinni-Pukh idyot v gosti” (“Winnie the Pooh Goes Visiting”). In this go-round, Vinni-Pukh determines that the best way to score a free meal is to show up unannounced as a guest at someone’s home. With Piglet tagging along, he steamrolls his way into the subterranean home of Rabbit. Unlike the neurotic clown in the Disney cartoons, the Russian Rabbit is a tall, think, bespectacled stoic who suffers Vinni-Pukh’s antics with stolid politeness.
Vinni-Pukh winds up being the world’s worst houseguest. When Rabbit requests that he wash up before eating, Vinni-Pukh vigorously scrubs and towel-dries Piglet’s face before casually wiping his own hands off. When Rabbit asks if Vinni-Pukh prefers honey or jam on his bread, the bear rudely tells his host to forget about the bread and bring over the honey jar. Vinni-Pukh’s gluttony causes him to get stuck in the entrance to Rabbit’s hole, but the combined effort of Piglet and Rabbit in pulling the fat bear out causes the canopy over the hole to come crashing down. Vinni-Pukh walks quickly away from the mess without offering to aid Rabbit.
A third cartoon, “Vinni-Pukh i den zabot” (“Winnie the Pooh and a Busy Day”) followed in 1972. At approximately 20 minutes, this one was twice as long as its predecessors – and it was also twice as strange.
The sad donkey Eeyore makes his Russian debut here, but the character is far more pathetic than his morose Disney counterpart. This Eeyore is first seen sitting in solitude, crying thick tears into a pond because no one recalled his birthday. The efforts of Vinni-Pukh and Piglet to alleviate their friend’s suffering bring out the worst in their respective personalities: Vinni-Pukh’s decision to give Eeyore a jar full of honey is disrupted when he eats the container’s contents, while Piglet’s reckless running to deliver a balloon to Eeyore causes the gift to burst during a fall.
Joining the fracas is Owl, who is given a sex-change operation here. This none-too-wise bird (wearing a red bonnet) appears to have the perfect gift for Eeyore: the donkey’s lost tail, which is being used as a string on a bell. By the end of the cartoon, Eeyore’s deep depression is replaced with euphoria as his birthday is acknowledged.
It is not clear if the Soviet filmmakers ever saw the Disney cartoons – if they did, they obviously ignored them. They obviously wanted to ignore Milne, who is not cited in any of the cartoons’ credits. Of course, they couldn’t ignore the fact that Milne’s copyright-protected work was ripped off for the benefit of the Russian kiddie audiences.
The problems with copyright violation kept the “Vinni-Pukh” series on the far side of the Iron Curtain. In recent years, the three cartoons turned up at online video sites – and at least one admirer took the liberty of offering English subtitles for these works. However, unless the Russians decide to pay the Milne estate for their ripoffs, there will be no formal commercial release in other countries. And that’s a shame because the impolite, aggressive Vinni-Pukh would certainly have a place of honor in today’s rude boy Western culture.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!