Around the world for the greater part of a century children have gown up knowing and loving A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.
If you’ve ever read the Introduction of the book, you know that Christopher Robin loved to visit the zoo and that his favorite exhibit was that of a bear named Winnie, who was so gentle that she was allowed outside her cage to socialize with human visitors.
The answer to the question posed in the title: Before Winnie was a classic in children’s literature, she was a real live bear who was also very much beloved.
Fade up: London Zoo. 1924. Children offer ice cream cones to a very mild-mannered bear named Winnie. “How did the bear get its name?” a young boy asks.
His father replies, “I don’t know, but I bet it’s quite a story.”
And it is. A BEAR NAMED WINNIE tells the true story of Lt. Harry Colebourne, who rescued an orphaned black bear cub and donated her to the London Zoo, where she eventually became the inspiration for Milne’s books.
In 1914 Lt. Colebourne, played by Michael Fassbinder (/Band of Brothers/), is on his way to WWI battlegrounds when he and other soldiers of the 34th Fort Garry Horse Division stop at a train station in White River, Ontario. When a startled horse starts trampling the market outside the train station, we get the first clue that Colebourne is extraordinarily good with animals as he calms the half-ton animal.
The next creature he finds is a crying bear cub, not nearly as big butclearly in distress. The cub has been orphaned by a hunter, and Colbourne, a trained veterinarian, knows she is too young to survive on her own. So, he buys the cub for $20.
Back on the train, the small bear meets with disapproval from the conductor and Colonel John Barret, played by Gil Bellows (/The Shawshank Redemption/ and/ The Practice/). That sets up the conflict for greater part of the movie. Colebourne and the men want to keep the cub. Despite the official rules they name her after their hometown Winnepeg and claim her as their mascot.
Once they reach their staging area in eastern Quebec, Col. Barret insists that the bear be removed from camp and returned to the wild, but Gen. Hallholland, played by David Suchet (best known as Hercule Poirot), thinks a mascot is good for moral.
During her tour of duty Winnie makes a mess of the mess tent kitchen and is suspected of more serious crimes at the camp. All the while, Colebourne and the other men cuddle and play with their cub in Canada and then in Great Britain, but finally they cannot take her to the front. She is too tame to live in the wild, so Colebourne takes her to the zoo.
A BEAR NAMED WINNIE manages to suggest the heart-rending sadness of war without ever graphically presenting battle scenes, so it’s very appropriate for children. After the war, there’s an emotional reunion when grown Winnie puts her arms around Lt. Colebourne and rests her head on his, clearly comforting him. Her love and affection heal the broken soldier and I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the house.
The film, made for Canadian television, looks fantastic on the big screen and the score adds just the right touch of humor and whimsy. When the war becomes more present the music reflects the less joyful mood without becoming heavy. The period costumes and sets lend authenticity and the actors bring an innocent sensibility to their portrayals which feels right for 1914.
The only technical flaw is the repeated use of slow-motion in the close shots of the bear cub. These were almost certainly used to compensate for the difficulty of keeping even a trained bear cub relatively still--in the camera frame and in focus--long enough for a decent shot. It’s a minor point and is easily overlooked. The film is skillfully directed by John Kent Harrison. His previous credits include numerous TV movies, including /A Wrinkle in Time /and/ Helen of Troy/.
A BEAR NAMED WINNIE is a Crystal Heart Award winner from the 2005 Heartland Film Festival and will be available on DVD in November, 2005.