Bear in Mind

Toy aisles are like Hollywood -- every year there are more young faces and fewer of the old ones. There's the new blood: Arthur, the Teletubbies, Bear in the Big Blue House, Pokémon, and Blue and her clues. Then come the middle-aged toys: the residents of Sesame Street, a Muppet or two, Scooby-Doo, and G.I. Joe. But the oldest face belongs to that silly old bear, Winnie the Pooh. Depending on whom you ask, Pooh is either 79 (based on August 14, 1921, the day author A.A. Milne presented his son Christopher Robin with the stuffed bear) or 75 (counting from October 14, 1924, the publication date of Milne's first Pooh book). Either way he's outlived his contemporaries (the Velveteen Rabbit and Rat and Mr. Toad of The Wind in the Willows, to name a few).Like many actors in his age group, he's also had a facelift. About 40 years ago Disney transformed him from Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepherd's pale yellow polar bear to the more human, mustard-yellow bear for its lucrative line of films, books, and merchandise that began with 1961's Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. At the same time, Disney bought the rights that allowed it to produce story lines independent of Milne's original books, When We Were Young, Winnie the Pooh, Now We Are Six, and The House at Pooh Corner. Ironically, while Milne spent most of his post-Pooh career trying to be remembered for his essays, plays, and novels instead of his children's books, it is Pooh instead who is remembered beyond them.

But something strange happened to the Bear of Very Little Brain: He's become known as an intellectual guru. As the kids who were raised with him grew up and went away to school, they made connections between their lessons and the animals of the Hundred Acre Wood. Unlike Christopher Robin, who spent most of his life running from his famous moniker and childhood toys, the rest of us didn't want to leave Pooh gathering dust on a shelf in the nursery.

Pooh was connected to the Tao and Piglet to the Te in books by Benjamin Hoff. Other books tried to prove that Milne's stories held insight into Western philosophy and the millennium and that Pooh, who couldn't govern himself without being chased by bees or getting his head stuck in a honey pot, was the perfect example for management strategies in business. What's next? The Grinch Who Stole Christmas as an allegory for foreign democracy? Dexter's Laboratory as an allusion to the American and Russian nuclear weapons race?

Of course, backlash usually follows fame. Performance artist Karen Finley wrote Pooh Unplugged, which transforms the characters' lovable quirks into dangerous obsessions. It barely registered on the Pooh monitor, proving you can't keep a good bear down, even if he is an old geezer.

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Shannon Sutlief