Winnie-the-Pooh is a much-loved (but sometimes intensely disliked) fictional bear who evolved from the childhood stories told to his son (Christopher Robin) by A. A. Milne, the author of a series of books first published almost a century ago. The original Pooh was an actual toy bear bought in Harrods in 1921. Other toys belonging to the little boy, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger, were incorporated into Milne’s stories as friends of Pooh, who was presented as “a bear of very little brain”. Pooh and his friends lived in the 100 Acre Wood, where they got into all sorts of scrapes.
The anthropomorphic bear, his name now without hyphens, was licensed by the Disney company in 1961 for a very successful series of features that became one of their most popular franchises. I loved the books as a child, and hated what the cartoons had done to him, but maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, Milne’s U.S. copyright in Winnie-the-Pooh expired at the end of 2021, 95 years since publication of the first story. The character therefore entered the public domain in the United States, with Disney no longer holding exclusive rights. Independent filmmaker Rhys Frake-Wakefield seized on this opportunity to create a horror film titled Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.
The premise, told through a cartoon opening, is that Winnie and Piglet feel betrayed and abandoned by Christopher, who has grown up and moved on to big-boy things like college and sex. (For a wonderful discussion of the difference between being “lost” and being “abandoned”, I recommend Hayley Singer’s new book, Abandon Every Hope). They have gone feral.
During a particularly cold winter, they are starving, and decide to kill and eat their old friend Eeyore the donkey, which drives them to detest humanity. They make a pact:
“they renounced their humanity and returned to their animalistic roots, swearing never to talk again.”
When Christopher comes to the 100 Acre Woods with his fiancée Mary five years later, he looks for his old friends, telling her “It’s going to be OK, alright, I promise.” Only of course it isn’t. Pooh and Piglet kill her and capture him, and chain him up in their old house, where he can see his (late) fiancée hanging defleshed (eaten?) from a meat-hook, while Pooh flogs him with the late Eeyore’s tail.
Pooh and Piglet then proceed to hunt and kill a group of women students who have come to a holiday house in the woods to help one of them recover from a stalking incident (clever poetic irony) and then Pooh kills some men who try to help them. There is a lot of extreme violence involved including strangling, crushing with cars, mauling (by piglet of all people), insertion into a wood-chipper, and bludgeoning with a sledge-hammer.
At this point, I need to come clean and admit that I am having trouble classifying this as a cannibal film. Lots of people get killed (it’s definitely a slasher), and toys eat another toy at the beginning, which is a sort of cannibalism (but only in the way that Woodstock from Peanuts is a cannibal for eating turkey on Thanksgiving). I don’t know that toys are a discrete “species”, but if not then even a real pig and bear eating a donkey is nowhere near cannibalism. But the introduction says they “renounced their humanity”, so I’m taking that as a licence to include this in a cannibalism blog; they were anthropomorphically human when they ate the human donkey, right? Hey, even Princess Fiona from Shrek wasn’t really human (she was a secret ogre) but we wrote up her exploits, eating brave knights who came to save her. So we have some fun ontological challenges like “what is cannibalism?” what is “eating?” and “what is human?” Apparently they believe that not talking is the way to renounce humanity, which both bolsters anthropocentric arguments about human superiority (we are often described as the only species with a language, to the annoyance of the whales), but also raises some interesting questions for the voiceless, or those who choose not to talk. Does a vow of silence mean a renunciation of humanity? A question for another time and, hopefully, a different blog.
But from a Cannibal Studies point of view, there are some other interesting ideas in the back-story. It starts with starvation cannibalism (if we allow that name) in that, like survivors of plane crashes, shipwrecks, or ill-considered trips across the Sierra Nevada, Pooh and Piglet are driven to eat their friend Eeyore through extreme deprivation. But then we move to a new motivation – social degeneration, where the formerly very civilised, polite toys become psychotic murderers, much like the feral humans in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes or Death Line. Look, we don’t really see them eat humans, although we see a skull and jars of blood, and hear reports of mutilated bodies being found in the woods, so there is a certain implication. But they are not human, so that’s OK. They’re not even officially animate, although you wouldn’t say that if they were swinging a sledge-hammer toward your head. And just when did they learn to drive cars?
The film has had almost universally awful reviews, collecting a woeful 4% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, with The Times critic saying:
“Rhys Frake-Waterfield cloddishly desecrates your childhood, and AA Milne’s beloved classic, with a dimly written, shoddily realised, sub-standard slasher whose artistic aspirations never reach beyond making a fast buck.”
The Guardian was even less impressed, describing the film as:
“…a terrifying combination of not-scary and not-funny, and a cast of Love Island types on Xanax apparently reading the dialogue off an optician’s chart held up behind the camera.”
Look, it’s not that bad – the woods look nice but also somewhat ominous, and while some of the acting is wooden, they all have great death scenes, and the violence is enough to attract any gorehound. Anyway, the film was a big success on its release in January (in Mexico) and February (US, UK). As of 23 February 2023, Winnie-The-Pooh: Blood and Honey had grossed $1.8 million in the United States and Canada, and $2.4 million in other territories, including over $1 million in Mexico, for a worldwide total of $4.2 million. The budget was apparently less than $100,000, making it proportionally one of the most profitable films ever made, surprising even the film-maker.
Is it surprising though? Fan fiction has been rewriting classic stories for a while now (have you seen what sexual gymnastics some Fannibals have created for Hannibal and Will?), while stories of the perils of civilisation being brought down by thoughtless dedication to progress and neo-liberalism are the zeitgeist. Winnie-The-Pooh is our abandoned childhood, coming back to haunt us.
One thought on “WINNIE-THE-POOH: BLOOD AND HONEY (Rhys Frake-Waterfield, 2023)”
One more point occurred to me – the naming of the toys. Some considerable thought went into this, a century ago, in the head of Christopher Robin (well, not so much piglet, kanga and roo). Winnie was the abbreviated name of a (real) bear called Winnipeg that the boy saw at the London Zoo, and Pooh was the name of a friend’s swan, who they met on holidays.
What does it mean to have a name? Well, acts like murder (and particularly cannibalism) usually require dehumanisation of the victim. Journalists scramble to find the names of victims in order to re-humanise them and make their readers care enough to read beyond the headline. We take away names to dehumanise others of our species (e.g. by categorising them as “aliens” or giving them numbers), and we bestow names to privilege companion or other animals deemed worthy of respect, such as dogs, cats, whales and native fauna. Or, of course, our toys, who are as human to us in our infancy as our parents.
A toy or an animal with a name is a person, an honorary human being, and it is much harder to kill and eat such a person, which is why farmers refuse to name animals they intend to slaughter, and why animal liberationists immediately name the victims they film, in the hope of moving us to oppose their cruel treatment. Most of us believe that you cannot, or should not, kill and eat a person, but an unnamed steer, lamb, chicken, or fish is “just an animal”. The modern cannibal feels the same way, but rejects the concept of the human’s automatic entry into the category of “person”. Their syllogism goes that is that it’s OK to eat animals (in most cultures), humans are animals (particularly since Charles Darwin) and so, logically, it’s OK to eat humans.
They stop saying words, like serial killers Pooh and Piglet, at least those of empathy or kinship. They simply deny the magic powers of having a name.