Winnie the Pooh and the Public Domain
How a New Horror Movie is Shedding Light on an Old Concept
I had the pleasure of watching the recent micro-budget horror movie Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey. The movie has been greeted to rave reviews, being called the quintessential slasher, paying homage to the classics that built the genre.
Okay, the last sentence is dripping with sarcasm. This film is receiving exactly zero accolades. Nonetheless, when I stumbled across an article about it in January, I could not contain my laughter for the rest of the day. To its credit, the film was made for under $100,000 and grossed over $1.5 million in the first week of its release.
Winnie the Pooh and Piglet as ruthless, vengeful, murderous villains was not on my 2023 Bingo card. Nonetheless, it is the funniest concept I have heard for a movie since Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and it was all made possible by Winnie the Pooh’s entry into the public domain last year. Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield took full advantage and pivoted drastically from the innocent, heartwarming book series that originated in 1926.
For those not familiar, public domain is a concept that represents any creative work that is not protected under copyright. In some cases, the work was never protected, and in others, the term of protection for said work has expired. To highlight the importance of public domain, a revolutionary moment involving this concept occurred in 1993. Tim Berners-Lee and the research organization CERN developed and opened their WorldWideWeb project up to the public domain. Once the project became free and accessible to the public, many users were allowed to expand on it, gradually leading to the vast version of the Internet we know today.
In the world of cinema, several popular movies have been remade over the years due to their public domain status. If you enjoyed the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga romance in A Star is Born, you may direct your gratitude toward the original from 1937 and its existence in the public domain. The popular tales of Cyrano de Bergerac and Phantom of the Opera have each been remade multiple times, including the most recent installment of Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage. Steve Martin fans may find it intriguing that Little Shop of Horrors derived from a darker original work created 26 years prior that dwelled in the public domain. Additionally, Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Gold Rush and Christmas favorite It’s a Wonderful Life reside in the public domain space, free to be rebooted by any willing filmmaker.
What about TV shows? Several westerns remain free for a reboot, including Annie Oakley, Bonanza, The Roy Rogers Show and The Lone Ranger. Maybe to Happy Gilmore’s dismay, The Price is Right also exists in the public domain. Not to be outdone, the most beloved late night talk show of all time, The Johnny Carson Show, is open source and available to re-use.
Public domain characters are commonly used in video games, comic books, and merchandise, as anyone who peruses Etsy would know. In video games and comic books, they often serve as hidden characters to be unlocked or in cameo appearances of sorts. While intriguing, there is not often a storyline built around them.
While many well-known fictional characters are in the public domain, recent adaptations of them generally stay within the same basic idea. The character of Sherlock Holmes has been in the public domain for some time, but every work created has still depicted him as the sleuth he was in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original project. Similarly, Count Dracula has remained a seductive vampire in all works subsequent to Bram Stoker’s creation. Good or evil, most public domain characters have held onto the same ethos through decades of re-use, which makes the 180-degree pivot of Winnie the Pooh from the most kind-hearted cartoon character to a cold-blooded murderer all the more jarring (and hilarious).
While I enjoyed the honey-loving bear just like everyone else as a child, I could not share in the dismay and anger of many moviegoers who saw Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey. I did not feel like it ruined my childhood, as some others claim. On the contrary, I will probably giggle whenever I see the actual children’s cartoon or any installment of the book series on the shelves. There have been multiple “shoot ‘em up” Santa movies in recent years. No one feels that their childhood has been affected in any way by these bizarre renditions. They are goofy takes on fictional characters and historical figures to which we are frequently exposed.
The release of this silly slasher got me thinking, “What other characters are in the public domain, and how silly could we get re-imagining their personas?” Here’s a brief brainstorming session:
Hercules as a Hot Shot High School Quarterback
If Coach Taylor had a Greek mythological figure show up on day one of tryouts, I doubt he’d complain. Hercules could break Texas high school football records lining up under center, so long as his massive upper body stopped bursting through every jersey.
Frankenstein as a Substitute English Teacher
Given that the green monster is in the public domain, I would not mind seeing him save a boarding school with his love of literature in The Undead Poets Society.
Aladdin as an Olympic Bobsledder
Bobsledding is right up this dude’s alley! Maybe a little colder than he would like, but high-speed travel was always his thing. Just gotta learn the teamwork element.
Alice in Wonderland as a Freedom Fighter in a Simulated Universe
This isn’t exactly breaking the mold, since there’s already an Alice in Wonderland reference in The Matrix. Still, watching Alice stop bullets with her hand or beat up hundreds of agents on a playground would be endlessly entertaining.
Snow White as an Embattled Basketball Coach
In every basketball movie, a charismatic coach leads a team of untrained misfits to new heights, culminating in a big game against a powerhouse school. What greater odds to overcome than having seven dwarves make up your basketball roster? Especially when one of them falls asleep on defense all the time.
Peter Pan as a Disgruntled In-Law
Okay, I’m not sure exactly where to take this one. But the idea of a grumpy Peter Pan trying to stop his daughter from marrying a guy that looks way older than himself is hard not to laugh at.
Cinderella as a Hip-Hop Dancer
What if instead of a fancy dress, the crew of mice helps Cinderella into a pair of army pants and a baseball cap cocked to the side? She could be the first dancer to show up to a stepping competition in a pumpkin carriage.
You can decide for yourself if any of these top Winnie the Pooh wielding a meat cleaver, but those are just a few drastic re-imaginings of public domain characters. Hopefully, we will see filmmakers experiment and take similar risks with creative works that are open to the public.