Hollywood’s formula for freshening up old cartoon characters like Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Smurfs goes something like this: Reformulate them in 3-D, give them a skateboard and sunglasses, add some dance moves and inundate children and their nostalgic parents with advertising.
And it has worked with one very notable exception. Winnie the Pooh.
In 2007, the Walt Disney Companyfollowed the blueprint, abandoning the character’s gentle hand-drawn look in favor of slick Pixar-style animation. Pooh got a scooter and a superhero outfit. Christopher Robin was jettisoned in favor of a 6-year-old tomboy named Darby.
As it turned out, nobody wanted to see Eeyore breakdance.
So Disney is re-introducing the classic Pooh characters across its empire, most notably in a new movie that arrives in theaters on Friday. It is a bid to capture a generation more accustomed to the special effects wizardry of Harry Potter, the smart-alecky knowingness of “Kung Fu Panda” and the fast pace of “Cars 2.” Because the bear with the rumbly tummy has traditionally been one of the first characters parents introduce to their children, Disney is reverting to what it does best — pushing the nostalgia button.
In a nod to the character’s 1966 big-screen debut in “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,” the new movie, titled simply “Winnie the Pooh,” begins with a live-action sequence in Christopher Robin’s room and then becomes animated once the camera dives into a storybook, returning the characters to their old-fashioned, slower, water-colored roots.
“We are constantly trying to evolve our characters, but in this case we want to get away from trying to make Winnie the Pooh in any way modern,” said Mary Beech, a Disney vice president and steward of the Pooh brand.
The stakes are high for Disney. Global sales of Pooh merchandise — books, plush toys, T-shirts, potty chairs — have fallen 12 percent over the last five years, but still account for a staggering $5.5 billion.
Branding experts say aging character franchises are among the most difficult to keep alive because they require continually walking a tightrope. “With Winnie the Pooh, Disney is going to continue to struggle with the tension of remaining relevant to kids versus maintaining a love-mark brand that parents trust,” said Matt Britton, a founder of Mr. Youth, a New York marketing firm.
Pooh, which remains Disney’s second best-selling character after Mickey Mouse, is a vital cog in Disney’s ambition to move deeper into entertainment for preschoolers and merchandise for infants. But the company says internal research indicates that Pooh is also the No. 1 character that women want on clothing and accessories for themselves.
As a result, Disney has been pursuing higher-end Pooh products, particularly in overseas markets, which represent 79 percent of the franchise’s annual retail sales. Designers in Japan, for instance, have licensed the character for $700 dresses and $400 bags; limited-edition plush toys run $299.
Retro may be the rallying cry for the revitalization effort, but Disney executives emphasize that the execution has modern touches. For instance, a revamped Facebook page dedicated to the character has over 2.2 million followers, and a Pooh iPad and iPhone app called Puzzle Book is a hit. A few months ago, a Hundred Acre Wood-themed ride at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., was outfitted with oversize video touch screens; children can write on them by smearing virtual dripping honey.
Still, the most visible of Disney’s efforts are notably yesteryear. Disney Channel in September will introduce “The Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” a series made up of clips from “Honey Tree” and other old movies. (Disney Channel has canceled “My Friends Tigger and Pooh,” the ill-fated effort featuring Darby.)
Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, the directors of the new movie, said they labored to distill the characters to what made them superstars in the first place. “A touch of cynicism is certainly prominent in movies today, and we were adamant that absolutely none of that could creep in,” said Mr. Anderson.
Mr. Hall added, “People want these characters to be who they are and not grow and change, which is a real difference.”
Pooh and his pals, created in 1926 by the British author A. A. Milne, also interact with letters and punctuation marks on the pages as the film progresses, another nostalgic touch. The movie, based on three of Milne’s original stories, follows the friends as they find Eeyore a new tail and fret about Christopher Robin, who they fear has been captured by a monster called a Backson. (In reality, Owl just misread a note reading, “Back soon.”)
To recreate the old look, Mr. Hall and Mr. Anderson studied original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard in the collection of Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum. They also collaborated with Burny Mattinson, a veteran of the Walt Disney Animation Studios who was an assistant on “Honey Tree” and oversaw subsequent Pooh cartoons.
Disney’s renewed focus on Pooh comes as the company has been freed from decades of legal entanglements related to the character. Milne sold the merchandising rights to Stephen Slesinger, a licensing entrepreneur, in 1930; Disney acquired those rights in 1961. But the Slesinger heirs sued Disney in 1991 over what they saw as inadequate royalty payments. Disney fought back, and the feuding continued until last year, when the media company emerged victorious.
At a time when first graders watch Disney’s PG-13-rated “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, will simplicity sell? The answer may not come on opening weekend. Disney is risking box-office suicide by releasing “Winnie the Pooh” against the final Harry Potter installment. But Disney’s film was cheap by Hollywood standards — about $30 million — and the company is not aiming for a Pixar-level blockbuster.
“It sounds crazy, but as a G-rated film you can do a lot more matinee business in the summer,” Mr. Hall said. “And this is not just about making a successful movie.”