The Scoop: 2004 PG, directed by John Kent Harrison and starring Michael Fassbender, Gil Bellows, David Suchet, and Stephen Fry
Summary Capsule: The story of how the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh traveled from Canada to England during WWI.
Eunice’s Rating: “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
Eunice’s Review: Time to discuss another actor I’ve been minorly obsessed with. In 2006 BBC America started airing a series called Hex. Though I really really wanted to like Hex, I found the pacing awkward and the main character Cassie incredibly irritating. While the show may not have panned out for me it did introduce me to Jemima Rooper and… Michael Fassbender. This was before 300 had come out and so the pickings to find more of his work were, as they say, slim. And so it was that I came across this Canadian made TV-movie.
A Bear Named Winnie is an unsanctioned-by-Disney telling of how a bear ended up becoming a mascot to the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, traveling from Canada to London where she meets A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin.
1914, veterinarian and soldier Lt. Harry Colebourn (Michael Fassbender) is traveling with the Corps to Valcartier, Quebec to train before heading to Europe to fight in the first World War. At a stop in White River, Ontario Harry meets an orphaned female bear cub. Unwilling to see the bear put down he buys her and his regiment makes her their mascot naming her Winnipeg after Harry’s home town. They eventually smuggle her into England, donating her to the London Zoo where she goes on to become the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.
As an animal movie a lot of the cliches are here: The hard hearted character who doesn’t want the bear warms up to and backs Winnie and Harry. The bear gets wrongfully accused of being dangerous. There’s bonding montages. Heart breaking separation scenes.
But ABNW is a bit of a hard movie to pin down. It’s obviously a kids’ movie, a good one too, but as much as it’s about a cute bear cub it’s also that much of a war movie. There’s a big focus on the jarring difference of being on friendly ground compared to the battlefield and the unreality of war until they’re in it. With other important characters hovering just outside the scope of the Winnie storyline there’s clashing between the dying old school of thought in a new kind of warfare after the Industrial Age. While there isn’t anything particularly graphic shown, be ready to talk about death, PTSD, classism, the fact that animals that were no longer able to do their job must be put down (again not shown, though they don’t flinch from telling you they’ll be shot), and why sleeping at your post is a big deal. Especially after Winnie is at the Zoo, she nearly starves herself to death pining for Harry, and Harry goes to France, where members of his regiment die. Director John Kent Harrison says in the making of featurette that “it’s not a violent movie, but it implies the tragedy of war.” I think it does a fair job of balancing that.
But hey, it’s okay! Happy ending okay?
Parts of it are really cheesy, not going to lie, but as with any war movie its good points lay with the chemistry of its actors. David Suchet is the old soldier in charge of training who is a little around the bend (think strawberries in The Caine Mutiny). Gil Bellows [forever Billy Thomas] is the hard, but honest Col. John Barret. Stephen Fry is the zoo keeper who hates children and doesn’t understand animals. Jonathon Young is Harry’s best friend who is convinced that being veterinarians they won’t actually see any action. Aaron Ashmore is Harry’s other friend and a bit of a screw up.
Then there’s Michael Fassbender. It’s a big difference going back and watching this now after Fassbender has added so much to his videography – mostly playing grey characters and outright villains. I can say that I had honestly forgotten that he could play anything other than menacing (I blame the eyes and strong jaw), shame on me. If you’ve ever wondered if he can play somebody gentle and kind, here you go. Harry’s so nice and animals love him, with just a touch of likable rebel. He has to try to balance his love and respect of animals and being a healer with the stark unforgiving harshness of war.
So what is A Bear Named Winnie? It’s a cheesy, but not terribly so animal movie. It’s the story behind the real Winnie and a piece of Canadian history. It’s a WWI war movie about a part of the army I admit I never really thought much about. I have no problem adding it to my short list of kid friendly movies that have a little more heart and aren’t likely to destroy brain cells. In fact, gosh darnnit, I like it. And it has Michael Fassbender.
- The tune that plays during the beginning of the sentimental moments theme is ‘This World Is Not My Home.’
- The song General Hallholland is listening to is ‘When This Lousy War is Over.’
- If you’d like to see the memorial statue of Winnie and Lt. Coleburn
- While the movie acknowledges the inspiration to Milne, it never uses the name Winnie the Pooh due to Disney’s copyright.
- I totally recommend the making of special feature, take the time to watch it if you can.
- Gil Bellows’ running…
- Okay I really want to like this movie, but I could do with fewer random acts of slo-mo
- Is It Worth Staying Through End Credits? After the movie, but before the credits start proper, there’s a scroll that tells you what became of Lt. Coleburn and Winnie.
George: Go give the Kaiser a good kick in his royal posh behind!
Lt. Harry Colebourn: You’re going to to get me in trouble, aren’t you?
Lt. Harry Colebourn: And “rules are rules?”
Captain Elliot: There you have it.
Lt. Harry Colebourn: There’s no rule against having a mascot.
Lt. Harry Colebourn: We’re tent mates it seems.
2nd Lt. Ian Macray: Well, ‘as a man thinks so he becomes.’
Col. John Barret: Very well. I know she was on the boat, I have evidence. And I know she’s here. And when I get to the bottom of all this, the bunch of you will be facing disgrace, dishonour, and a punishment so cruel, only English school boys could’ve thought of it. Do you understand?
Col. John Barret: Sir, the sun is about to set on your day to have a say in anything that matters. And as to your other point: My father didn’t need to wear a uniform to be a man of honour.
Lt. Harry Colebourn: I don’t think Winnie knows she’s a bear.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- War Horse
- The Journey of Natty Gann
- Operation Dumbo Drop