by Tony Dayoub
As the latest entry in the Harry Potter franchise began its run this past weekend (a series I'd given up on once the movies started to blend together in my recollection) I sat with my 2-year-old in a movie theater introducing him to the wonders of cinema with his first film, Winnie the Pooh. I couldn't have selected a better movie to hold my hyperactive child's attention. My older son, J, is a placid little fella, zen-like in his ability to quietly transport himself into the same imaginative universe populated by his Marvel superhero action figures. He loves sitting at the movies with me and falling into the same escapist's world of pleasure I do. The little one, K, is more of a show-me-what-you-got, rampaging ball of hellfire prone to daredevil-like stunts of frightening proportions. But he's always held a soft spot for stuffed animals in a way his older brother never has, cuddling them tightly as he sucks his thumb to lull himself to sleep. Pooh is his favorite. So while I was terrified of exposing him to the adrenaline rush of the vacuous Cars 2 earlier this summer, I had no such reluctance when it came to Winnie the Pooh.
Neither did the moms or dads at the screening we attended, who all brought teeny tag-alongs who hovered at around the same age level as my sturdy little K. But I was surprised to see the theater so empty on Friday morning, a time slot that many parents designate as the perfect moment to bring small kids along before lunch and afternoon nap time hit. Family movies like Winnie the Pooh, designed to lure nostalgic parents (I was almost 5 when the compilation film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was released) along with eager children, usually play to packed audiences on opening weekend. But Winnie the Pooh had a poor turnout, not just in my theater but throughout the nation, despite receiving positive notices from critics and audiences.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is partially to blame. It is the last entry in a series of movies that started out targeting children and later hooked parents as well (my wife is a huge fan). The behemoth crushed all competitors this weekend, earning nearly $500 million globally, besting its studio's own The Dark Knight in opening weekend returns. But still, Winnie the Pooh was a smart bit of counter-programming from Disney, conscious that children as young as my K wouldn't be going to Harry Potter anytime soon. Or at least it would have been had they bothered to target the young ones.
Even a 2-year-old like K is scarily aware enough to tug at mommy or daddy's sleeve when an ad for something he wants runs on Disney Channel (which is often playing on our TV). However, I rarely saw any such ad run for Pooh on any of the kid-targeting networks. Instead, Disney seemed to be pursuing nostalgic adults with a Keane-scored trailer designed to bring tears to their eyes. Clever jokes peppered the preview to demonstrate that Pooh Bear still has a hip quotient. A short clip I caught on Hulu promoted Zooey Deschanel's involvement with the movie's soundtrack (which, by the way, is quite enchanting... as is Deschanel's lovely, resonant voice). All but forgotten were the teenyboppers who were going to hound parents to take them to see Winnie the Pooh this weekend.
I suppose it got parents like me, who could give a shit about Harry Potter, into theaters. But without your child's incessant persuasion to take him to the multiplex to see Pooh, chances are you will put off seeing the movie until next week, or the next, until it's gone, something which occurs with much more rapidity these days with the increasingly narrow window between theatrical and home video release. Winnie the Pooh will make its money back, especially when it goes to DVD. As all Disney movies do, it has legs and will be seen by many generations of children to come. But what an ignominious way to kick this beloved character (second only to Mickey Mouse in Disney's pantheon) out to theaters.