Let’s start with a little personal history: when this reviewer caught the live-action adaptation of Norman Bridwell’s endearing giant canine in 2021’s Clifford the Big Red Dog, he decried it in the harshest of terms as “vapid […] soulless torture.” For context, the film was about its eponymous furry fella and the adorably oblivious family that took him in before he inflated to the size of a small truck; the stakes at hand were split, somewhat evenly, between familial dynamics (acclimatization to the stares, the discrimination, oh the household budget — wait — what even does he eat?) and global conspiratorial shenanigans (the lab coats after Clifford’s flesh and blood, very much for research purposes and maybe a smidge of profit here and there). Why Clifford the Big Red Dog proved anathemic was neither wholly the result of its cringeworthy antics nor its shoddy, uncanny animatronics. Rather, Walt Becker’s post-peak COVID defibrillation for cineplexes and their communal origins failed due to stark irrelevance: there was simply nothing to the film, not even its wink-wink wokeisms or fairytale truisms, to entice audiences beyond the immediacy of the scene, sometimes not even halfway past. Unless we count the toddlers-to-five-years range, but even then it wouldn’t be surprising if TikTok and the iPad have already indoctrinated them into a realm of irony and self-consciousness — markers of baseline social sentience.
The reason this is personal news, and the reason why this unlucky (and unforgettable) memory has been dredged up, is because you can, apparently, do worse than vapid, soulless torture. Enter another franchise beloved by all: as the “bear of very little brain,” children’s classic, pre-war nostalgia, proto-Paddington, Xi Jinping, and psychoanalytic pasture, which have been its alternative denotations, Winnie-the-Pooh remains one of the more influential cultural icons of cartoons and childhood around the world. Created by the vivid imagination of one A.A. Milne, and soon copyrighted by the Disney empire, Pooh exudes an air of tranquility, of innocence not yet lost and still reflected in the bumbling denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, representing an unexpectedly progressive take on mental health representation (all of Pooh’s neighbors, including the young human master Christopher Robin, could potentially be read as stand-ins for various disorders). Whether child or adult, boomer or zoomer, jaded hermit or suburban wine mom, you’ve probably come across some adaptation, T-shirt, or souvenir of the bear; there’s even a meme template featuring Pooh with different degrees of physical and intellectual sophistication.
What Clifford and Pooh share, then, are two volatile ingredients in a recipe for disaster: the potential for live-action, and the ensuing fanfare that naturally springs from any announcements of the former sort. So when the lovable ursine entered America’s public domain on January 1 last year, who but an opportunistic, clout-chasing wannabe-director leapt at the chance to legally stamp his own brand on Milne’s legacy, and cook up a horror slasher while at it? To be very clear, there’s nothing ethically dubious about reappropriating public domain stuff, even if for arguably “distasteful” ends — little point arguing with the conservatives and moral police, who tend to base their premises on very different first principles. But there’s something quite questionable about cashing in on the attention deficits of hunger-starved tweens and older moviegoers alike, only to yield pointless, less than incompetent garbage. Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, written, directed, and produced by the incoming Rhys Frake-Waterfield, is a nightmare true to its genre, only that its terrors are induced not by some changeling monstrosity, but by mind-boggling indifference to image and craft. Ostensibly a film about Pooh turned evil, it situates Milne’s lore in a contemporary alternate universe where he presumably never existed and Christopher Robin finally grew up to abandon his rural coterie.
With their caretaker off to college, Pooh et al. — hereby reimagined as anthropomorphic, originally savage creatures — are forced to brave the loss of human companionship, retreating into a winter of decrepitude and starvation where they mutually sacrifice the sullen Eeyore for food. The trauma of this act, or so the film goes, scars them into permanent silence and pushes them back to their feral roots, engendering severe hatred for all of civilization, adolescent dudes and chicks included.
All of this makes up the film’s paltry opening minutes, rendered in somewhat decent animation. Had Blood and Honey kept that tone and quality up throughout the rest of its runtime, the result would have at least been bearable, even if a little lackadaisical. But Frake-Waterfield knows his audiences aren’t here for a long time, and not even for a particularly good time; they’re watching his film because someone told them to, because the single digits on Rotten Tomatoes bespeak a cinematic rite of passage, because they banned it in Hong Kong (Pooh’s murderous rampage probably too overt a metaphor for Beijing’s censors), or just because. And so Blood and Honey takes itself to its logical conclusion: numbing bloodshed. Pooh and Piglet, infused with a thirst for human blood, kill and hack their way through the forest around their enclave, to which an adult Christopher Robin initially returns, followed by a gaggle of sorority girls looking to Airbnb, away from city-life stress. The dynamic duo murder and scalp his girlfriend, shower her blood on a whipped and shell-shocked Christopher, and exact similar patterns of revenge on anyone else within their radius of scent. They get knocked down from time to time, but it’s not clear if they’re somehow unassailable or if their victims are too utterly stupid to finish them off.
The slasher formula, even when stripped of its accessories, isn’t indicative of boredom tout court. Blood and Honey, however, goes one step further and beneath the workings of many a mainstream kill-and-fill to strip and season all the wrong places. The team behind this titanic failure sand away any meaningful dialogue or motive, and pepper its frames with body counts. They invoke a brief subtext on harassment and stalking, only to reduce the women to dumber-than-dumb blondes upon sighting P&P. The murderous duo aren’t even feral creatures here, but two muscular men in droopy cosplay masks that — pardon the expression — resemble inbred furry Ghostfaces. When Piglet catches one of the girls, she kicks up a whole fuss, only to wade into the Airbnb’s indoor swimming pool and wait there. Like a literal NPC, she lingers, patiently allotting the next scene to another girl who’s incapacitated and screaming her brains out, and then waiting for Tusk Man to wade into the pool for company, before she then tries to tread her way out of the slog. She doesn’t, spoiler alert, and Piglet’s mallet blow to her head for once lends credence to the reactionary old guard who correlate violence with suicide, onscreen gore as manifestation of the desire to end it all. It is a bloody relief — albeit momentarily, because Frake-Waterfield has to justify his passion project and afford the two killers their spree quota. Blood and Honey just keeps going, and its superficially modest 84-minute runtime soon turns into a grotesque orgy of banality as the screaming and hammering ramp up to no foreseeable end. Oh fucking bother.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.