I was thinking about character development and adaptation because I was once again hit with the realization that somehow the four Winnie the Pooh characters Disney decides to merchandize are Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore. (These thoughts could probably apply to dozens of characters that span different media incarnations, but I found it an interesting thought exercise.)

Pooh, Piglet and Tigger make perfect sense. Obviously Pooh is the main character, and has most of the “heart” in the films. Piglet is the cute bestest friend, and Tigger has energy and enthusiasm.

But how is Eeyore attractive enough to make the cut? I notice that Disney tries quite a bit to make him cute. He smiles a lot on kids’ decorative products. And there are butterflies? Where in the world does that come from?

I, like probably most people my age, first knew about Pooh through the shorts from the ‘60s and ‘70s (and/or the movie, read-along tapes, books, etc. made from them). Later in grade school I pretty quickly became a fan of the Milne books, and the older I get the funnier they seem.

Milne’s Eeyore isn’t cute at all. His predominant characteristic seems to be that he’s passive-aggressive. It’s funny because he’s surrounded by people who are unable to pick up on nuance and sarcasm. His basic interaction with everyone is in the context that he may well be the smartest person in the Wood (which isn’t saying much) surrounded by comparative morons (which is saying quite a great deal).

So now in the late ‘60s, how do you make that attractive in your film? Well, first of all you make him a more secondary character.  Also, you can’t really get away from the grumpy, but you can take away his opportunities for out-and-out snark.

At this point, you’ve made a significant change to the character. But I feel like it was a pretty good decision. I think Disney has a pretty good reputation for changing source material in ways that potentially result in better films. The increased cuteness allows the audience, rather than the other characters, to cotton on to their folly and foibles, which I think ultimately serves the pictures better. In my opinion, it was a good-faith change with some pretty practical storytelling motivation.

And here is where I think you get Eeyore as an initial candidate for merchandise. Once the whole production is less snarky, Eeyore , by the benefit of the doubt, looks friendlier than Rabbit (with his fastidiousness and spoilsport protection of his property from rampant destruction) or Owl (who’s too distractable by his own mind to really interact with anyone). The Disney Eeyore may be sad all the time, but he’s engaged in what’s going on when he’s present, and he’s not directly involved in any of the conflict (which is Rabbit’s job). I suppose there’s also a practical advantage in that his coloring provides more contrast than the warm gold/red/orange/yellow/pink of the other major products.

But the appeal of Eeyore as a product is still clearly distinct from his appeal as a character. Not even the film version of Eeyore hangs out with butterflies or smiles. It’s true that other incarnations of Eeyore (in the various TV shows and movies independent of the source material) may have developed the character in a more vulnerable direction, so depending on your views of “canon” there may not be that striking a contrast.

It seems like Milne’s Eeyore gives us a grump as we usually encounter them in the general world around us – he may be masking an unmet need for emotional closeness, but not one the victims of his snark are close enough to him to recognize. The Disney film Eeyore brings it a bit closer to home and gives us the grump we know a bit better – there’s no out-and-out-snark, and we seem to read a bit more goodwill into his identity, even if we would be pretty bored and irritated if we had to spend a lot of time with him. The merchandise (and perhaps latter-day-Disney-film) Eeyore reflects how we think of our own grumpy moods – just a phase or front for someone who really has more warmth and heart than Rabbit.

I’m not sure I can say that any of these incarnations is incomplete – they’re all pretty well-rounded characters. But they are certainly very different characters.

I feel like I should make a disclaimer here that I’m pretty familiar with the book and the shorts from the ‘60s and ‘70s, I remember vaguely enjoying the late-‘80s Saturday-morning show, and I’ve shied away from Pooh productions since (although I really wanted to see the newest movie version and will see it in the a couple of weeks on video).

So, which Eeyore is your favorite? What other changes to characters and premise show up on your radar?