Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On certain worlds: Hundred Acre Woods

One of the worlds visited by Sora isn't reached by the Gummi Ship. Early in the game, Sora is asked by Cid to bring a book to an old man living in District III; the man is Merlin (from Disney's version of the Arthur legend, "The Sword and the Stone") by opening a book in Merlin's room, he enters Hundred Acre Woods and meets Winnie-the-Pooh, who is sitting on a log, contemplating how one can say goodbye to oneself. 

The world of Hundred Acre Woods is a series of mini-games, set in different areas which become accessible after the player discovers "Torn Pages" in other worlds. There are no Heartless in Hundred Acre Wood; however, the world can be "closed" by finishing all the mini-games. Closing Hundre Acre Woods is a prerequisite for unlocking the preview short-film, but it isn't required to reach the end of the game.

The history of Pooh as an intellectual property, as a franchise, and as a license, aptly illustrates the vicissitudes of popular culture products since the mid-20th century. While almost all the worlds visited by Sora are taken from Disney properties which, themselves, are appropriations and retellings of existing narratives, the relationship between Disney and the estate of A.A. Milne is more complicated than most. Winnie-the-Pooh was among the earliest licensed cultural properties in the contemporary sense: the rights to publish, merchandise and broadcast Pooh material in the United States and Canada was first licensed to media producer Stephen Slesinger in 1930, only 4 years after the publication of the original book. Certain iconic elements of the depiction of Winnie-the-Pooh (the red shirt, in particular) were added to the original E.H. Shephard illustrations by Slesinger and his associates, and they would begin producing non-Disney Pooh films in the 1940s. After Slesinger's death in 1953, his widow continued to manager the brand, re-licensing it to Disney in 1961; the Milne family would also license global rights to Disney later the same year. After a series of complicated lawsuits, Disney has more recently allied itself with the Milne family to secure all rights from the Slesinger family; the franchise will go into the public domain in 2026.

Winnie-the-Pooh is Disney's most successful franchise, producing over $1 billion in revenues per year, surpassing the revenues brought in by the nominal flagship characters. The first Disney film to feature Pooh was Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1996). The visual depiction of Pooh as a Disney character has been relatively stable since that time; Pooh is often depicted wearing Slesinger's red-shirt, is given a portly and awkward style, and speaks slowly and amiably: the original voice work by Sterling Hollaway became the model for future vocal characterizations.

As Disney acquired broader rights to the Milne estate, they also managed to create a new line of merchandise and depictions which harkened back to the original Shephard illustrations. Called "Classic Pooh," the style is meant to evoke the original; however, Disney still does not own the rights to the original prints themselves, which are currently held by Egmont, a British publishing firm which took the rights to the illustrations in their acquisition of Reed's Children's Books, which had acquired them from the original publisher, Methuen, in the mid 1990s. The "Classic Pooh" line of merchandise also evokes that static and prosaic style of the original stuffed animals (owned by his son, Christopher) which inspired Milne's stories. (The original toy animals are on display at the New York Public Library.) Winnie-the-Pooh is a bifurcated franchise managed by Disney, which successfully markets the tension between them. Consumers who wary of the overtly animated style of the post-Slesinger Disney versions of the characters can instead collect merchandise with of the more illustrative, Edwardian style. The "pure" Disney version is the one which continues to produce new narrative configurations (Disney is planning a new film with a girl, Daphne, taking over the role of Christopher Robin,) while the classic version connotes its own historicity, appealing to a nostalgia that is made all the more pronounced by this bifurcation.

In Kingdom Hearts, the World of Pooh is encountered in both forms. The "classic" style is used in the interface by which the player, as Sora, accesses the various mini-games that constitute the Hundred Acre Woods, depicted as the pages of an open book, upon which Sora walks. The mini-games become available in a specified order as each new Torn Page is found in different worlds. The first, the "Hunny Hunt," is a game based on the first Pooh short created by Disney: "Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree" (1966).  Completing all the mini-games closes the Hundred Acre Wood; winning each mini-game superlatively, by accomplishing more difficult tasks, wins Sora an additional power (Cheer).

The Hundred Acre Wood reappears in Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II. In all cases, the world is played as a collection of mini-games, with no fighting. Nonetheless, when first encountered by Sora, the world has suffered a kind of oblivion of its own: only Pooh remains, as the other characters have disappeared, only to slowly return as new Torn Pages are discovered. The association of the Pooh franchise with the innocence of childhood suggests both that the prerequisite darkness does not exist in the hearts of the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood to produce Heartless. However, the near-oblivion also is consistent with the concept of Sora as someone on the cusp of adolescence, forgetting of the things of childhood.

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