Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin and other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood will be back on the big screen this month. Just don’t expect delightful animation, whimsical songs or heartwarming themes of young innocence and imagination. The new movie is spectacularly unsuitable for children: It’s a gore-splattered, live-action sequel out of a nightmare, featuring a terrifying pair of psychopaths who commit gruesome murders.
The villains? Pooh and Piglet themselves. The Bear of Very Little Brain is now a hulking, hollow-eyed monster, standing over six feet tall, with a sinister goofy grin on his yellow silicone face. His trusty companion, no longer pocket-sized, has the tusks and snout of a boar. As for the lovably mopey Eeyore, he has been mauled to death.
The title? “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.”
No, Disney has not lost the plot. What the company has lost, though, are the exclusive rights to some of its most beloved characters. On Jan. 1, 2022, the copyright to A.A. Milne’s 1926 book, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” expired, entering the public domain, and leaving Pooh and friends essentially up for grabs.
“Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” the feature filmmaking debut of Rhys Frake-Waterfield, will be released in the United States next week. Early glimpses have generated considerable online chatter, much of it of the so-bad-it’s-good variety. “I laugh-cried through the whole damn video,” Reddit user SweetPinkSocks commented on the trailer. “It’s going to be terrible but … I have to see it.” In January, IMDb’s official list of the most anticipated movies of 2023 had the movie at No. 2, behind Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.”
The hype, though, has been indivisible from the social-media outrage. Frake-Waterfield has been barraged with messages — including death threats — accusing him of corrupting minds and, yes, ruining childhoods. “Please don’t taint our innocent childhood memories with this,” one commenter, Kelia Chaquetta, wrote on his Instagram. “It’s like we intentionally find ways to put more evil into the world than good.”
On a video call, Frake-Waterfield said, “I am out to destroy all seven billion childhoods,” then added, “Just kidding.”
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Only a few years ago, he was working in corporate strategy for a multinational energy company in Britain. He quit his job and started dabbling in the film industry — visual effects, set design, cinematography — eventually finding a knack for producing. In a little over a year, he produced about 25 straight-to-DVD movies with titles like “Dinosaur Hotel,” “Croc!” and “The Area 51 Incident.”
Then Frake-Waterfield decided he might as well give directing a go. As a fan, he was drawn to horror, but not so-called elevated horror. He wanted to scare, shock and sicken. He just needed a strong, marketable premise. As he explained it: “Horror needs a hook.”
When he heard that Winnie the Pooh was no longer protected by copyright, an appropriately horrific idea began to form. What could be more attention-grabbing than that absent-minded bear starring in something like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”? The concept came together with the brutal clarity of a sprung bear trap. The whole twisted appeal, Frake-Waterfield said, is that “it doesn’t feel like it should exist.”
Frake-Waterfield had no particular fondness for or connection to the character or the stories growing up. So he read the original Milne book for the first time. He also familiarized himself with copyright law, which stipulated that in this case, anything introduced after 1926 was off-limits. That included Pooh’s red shirt. Tigger, too, was out of bounds, since he didn’t show up until 1928 in Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner”; he bounces into the public domain in 2024.
“I’m not a lawyer. Parody and trademark law kind of goes over my head a little bit,” he said. “But I do understand that if something’s gone into the public domain, it’s free rein.”
Actually, there is one caveat, because Disney still owns the trademark for the characters: Any new non-Disney usage of Pooh and the rest should not be easily mistaken as coming from Disney.
“Copyright is principally concerned with works of creative expression, while trademarks are used to identify goods or services as coming from a particular source,” said Aaron J. Moss, a lawyer specializing in copyright and trademark law. “So long as the new film uses only material that’s in the public domain, Disney wouldn’t have a copyright claim. But Disney could have a trademark claim if the film were marketed in a way that makes it look like the film was somehow associated with or approved by Disney.”
Not that there’s much chance of that here. In the new telling, Christopher Robin grows up and goes off to college, leaving Pooh, Piglet and the rest behind. When he returns to his old stomping grounds as a young man, girlfriend in tow, he finds that his old buddies’ brutish animal instincts have taken over, turning them into sadistic killers. Now the former besties are locked in a battle to the death.
In other ways, the movie is faithful to the source material. Pooh really loves honey, for example.
Frake-Waterfield wrote the screenplay, paying particular attention to making the death scenes as shockingly awful as possible. Torture, decapitation and a meat grinder are all involved. One of the director’s major inspirations was “Wrong Turn,” the horror franchise populated by deformed cannibals.
Pooh’s paws in the film are human hands in rubber gloves. But to be clear, this Pooh and Piglet are not serial killers in masks. They are, more frighteningly, bizarre half-animal, half-man hybrids of unknown origin and supernatural-seeming indestructibility.
The film was shot over a few days in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, the setting that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood. Amber Doig-Thorne, who plays one of the characters terrorized by Pooh, read the books as a child and owned the toys. Being kidnapped and terrorized by a larger-than-life version of the bear, slobbering globs of honey into her eyes, was strange, to say the least.
“I never thought I’d see one of my favorite childhood characters behead someone, or run a woman over with a car,” she said.
Early excitement surrounding “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” was so great that the cast and crew reassembled for several more days of reshoots. The body count grew, and some of the deaths became even more extreme. Originally intended as another straight-to-DVD affair, the movie will now be getting a weekslong theatrical release. Already, it has racked up nearly $1 million at the box office in Mexico, where it opened in January.
Part of the appeal is surely that the movie feels like an act of cheeky defiance against Disney. In a time when the company is systematically rebooting its various properties, “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” takes advantage of the brand awareness around Pooh, while also taking an ax to the brand. Think of it as gratuitous anti-nostalgia, the reboot from hell. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)
As for the online detractors, Frake-Waterfield is nonplused.
“It’s a view I really struggle to understand,” he said. “The only people who see this film are grown adults that want to watch it. I also just can’t relate to the idea of watching something obviously fictitious and saying it’s destroyed something in their mind. There’s way worse things happening in the world.”
A sequel has already been announced, suggesting that Pooh has every chance of becoming the next Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. Frake-Waterfield is excited by the horror-making potential of other characters in the stories, like Rabbit and Owl. But maybe, Frake-Waterfield suggests, his next horror venture won’t be a matter of public domain opportunism. “Maybe I could do it with Disney.”