Reviewed and Recommended by Andrew Melomet
Directed by John Kent Harrison and originally produced for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, A Bear Named Winnie tells the story of the World War I Canadian regimental mascot (2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade) that inspired the A.A. Milne character Winnie the Pooh. The story begins in 1914 with a young veterinarian, Lt. Harry Colebourn (Michael Fassbender) of the Fort Garry Horse leaving Winnipeg en route to the army camp in Quebec. At a rest stop in White River, Ontario, he buys an orphaned bear cub for $20 (the equivalent of about $350.00 in today's Canadian currency) and names her Winnie after his home base of Winnipeg. After training in Valcartier, Quebec, the Canadian Expeditionary Force sails for England. Unwilling to part with Winnie, Harry smuggles her aboard ship and into the camp at Salisbury Plain. When the regiment is ordered to France, Harry realizes he must part with Winnie and arranges for her to be temporarily housed in the London Zoo. He plans to take Winnie back to Canada after the war. But, while she's been at the zoo she's become a star attraction due to her gentle friendliness. When Harry returns, he's faced with either bringing Winnie back to Canada or letting her stay at the zoo. Once he realizes what a hit she is with the children he donates her to the London Zoo permanently. Harry Colebourn would return to Winnipeg alone.
(Yes, this is the wrong kind of bear, but please don't judge this DVD by its cover.)
Winnie was extremely tame. Parents could even place their children on her back for rides. A favorite activity was to give Winnie a drink of condensed milk mixed with corn syrup. Winnie lived at the zoo until 1934. In the last two years of her life she had cataracts and arthritis and suffered a stroke that partly paralyzed her. She was euthanized on 12 May 1934.
A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin were frequent visitors to the London Zoo. Christopher Robin loved Winnie and renamed Edward Bear, his stuffed teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh. (Pooh also happened to be the name for the family swan.) The first story with Winnie appeared in the London Evening News in December 1925, and over the years, A.A. Milne wrote a series of stories based on the adventures of his son's stuffed animals. In 1966 Walt Disney released the first animated short starring Winnie, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree.
This is a delightful family film with only a brief battlefield sequence. It's well acted, both by the humans and the bears. You feel there's a true warmth and friendship between Winnie (played by two cubs and a full-grown bear) and Harry. Gil Bellows plays Col. John Barret, the stern Chief Veterinary Officer who is won over by Winnie's warmth. David Suchet is General Hallholland, the often drunk commanding officer of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Stephen Fry plays Mr. Protheroe, the cranky keeper at the London Zoo who likes animals more than children and reluctantly accepts the young Winnie as a temporary guest. Currently, in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park there are two tributes to Winnie: a bronze statue of Captain Colebourn and Winnie, and an original oil portrait of Winnie the Pooh by the illustrator Ernest H. Shepard.
A Bear Named Winnie makes a perfect heartwarming Great War-themed gift for the holiday season.