“Pooh and Tigger, they're in here with us,” says Jim Cummings of the two characters he’s provided voices for for over 30 years. Disney's Christopher Robin, which includes the latest version of the characters, is out now in theaters. “And we're schizophrenic, and so are we, so it's fine!”
The A.A. Milne-by-way-of-Walt Disney characters are just two of the chorus of voices that have been residing inside Cummings’ head and emerging from his throat from the voice actors’ celebrated career: a very short list includes the Tasmanian Devil, Darkwing Duck and Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels character Hondo Ohnaka. But it’s Pooh and Tigger, roles he assumed after original voices Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell retired or passed away, that take center stage in Disney’s live-action film Christopher Robin, which has a grown-up version of the toys’ human best friend re-encountering his playmates – reimagined in adorably fuzzy CG forms – in middle age, just as he’s becoming disconnected from his better self.
Cummings, says Christopher Robin filmmaker Marc Forster, was critical to creating the necessary Pooh effect he wanted to have on audiences. “Because Pooh is sort of the anchor of it all, I felt like it was important that you start watching a movie and there's this voice you are familiar with,” says Forster. “It’s like this warm, secure blanket that gives you that feeling ‘I feel good here’…I felt that voice would feel familiar and would bring you back to childhood instantaneously. It’s like sometimes with smells you can smell something you haven't smelled for a long time and suddenly your memory goes back to that place you'd been in. That's the same with Jim Cummings’ voice.”
Cummings shared some of the secrets of creating the film and the perks of being Pooh during a roundtable session with ComicBook.com and other media outlets.
What’s the backstory of you becoming the voices of Pooh and Tigger for more than three decades?
Gosh, so 1987, and at that time, Pooh hadn't been around for…I don't know, 20-something years. The original shorts were out, and I always get a kick out of when people say, “Oh, that's right. You're the new guy." Yeah, I'm fresh as a daisy, thanks for noticing! But no, he hadn't been around for 20 years and people said, "What was it like taking over this huge franchise?" I don't know that it was at the time. And then on the other hand, I'm glad they think it is now.
So at the time it was not just another job, because they were still quite something. I mean, they were for me, anyway, coming from literature, and then Disney's fantastic recreation. I had to do it in service to the originals, and so job one was sounding like [original animated Pooh voice] Sterling Holloway. I always say, if Pooh had the hiccups or sneezed or fill in [a] bodily function, it has to sound like him. And same for Tigger.
And so that was job one: at that point, it was nailing the sound. And I've always said that Pooh's voice is sort of like [as Pooh] the wind blowing through cat-tails, and that's just my visual reference, I guess. And I don't know what Tigger's is: dragging a rig across the gravel driveway or something? Hard to say. But once you've nailed that, then you're in character and you imbue it with the right personality.
How did you approach performing Pooh and Tigger in this unique take on their story?
This was a different one. The way we did it originally, is I just recorded everything up front, before principle photography. And of course it changed – the story changes: little plot twists here and there, and you finesse that later on, but it gave them something to work with on set. And I was just telling Ewan [McGregor] in the hallway, I said, "I still think we have to get you an Academy Award for this." Because the guy was sitting there talking to a lump of fur, with a voice coming out the side, and sometimes it was just the puppeteer, and he's doing this great job: “Oh, my God, Pooh!” And he's sitting there talking to, really, a gray lump, which they had to CGI in later, and it's just seamless. So hats off.
They used the original recordings to sync up, to do the blocking, to do the principle shooting. And at that point, the animators came in and just did magic. Because if you look at it, for all the world, they're walking around, they're talking, they're bouncing. It's amazing. And then you finesse it. Then you get the, "Well, that lip flap was a little weird. Be careful, it says to sound a little more fuzzy." You know, you're fine-tuning it at that point, and I think it came out great.
When did you first get a sense that voice acting was in your future?
About four years old. I'd be doing dolphins and just anything. Invitations of my relatives, and they loved it. [Shakes his head no]…It was really annoying as a child. Really just an annoying: "You know, you're never gonna get anywhere with that. I don't know what the hell you're thinking there, kid! I mean, seriously, stop that, OK? And that was my mom! But it worked out.
Honestly I was four or five years old watching The Jack Benny Show and Mel Blanc – the great Mel Blanc – was a regular. It was in black and white, and my dad goes, "You see this guy here with the sombrero?" And I go, "Yeah?" He said, "His name's Mel Blanc. He's the guy who does the voice for Sylvester and Bugs Bunny and Tasmanian Devil." And I'm the Tasmanian Devil now, too, by the way! Yeah, I'm Winnie the Pooh and the anti-Pooh. No Taz for the Hundred Acre Wood, please. It'd eat the tree.
But I remember thinking, “So he does this for a living? Wow, jeez! And no one's making him stand in the corner?” So I thought, “I'll aim for that.”
Do you ever get recognized for your work?
I'll be on Entertainment Tonight or something like that, or somebody will be doing a behind the scenes of Disney's Princess and the Frog or whatever, Shrek, or something. And then, a little bit. I'll be standing there and people go...they're trying to figure out where they know me, and they usually think, “Didn't you detail my dad's car?" And I go, "Yes, how's it running?" "You did a great job." But it's a little bit, but I'm OK with that.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be facially famous, and I have so many friends that are, and it's nice, I think. Helps to get a good seat at a restaurant, but other than that… Well, I can tell you this. I do a lot of Comic-Con conventions. Not a lot, but maybe eight or 10 a year, and boy everybody knows me there! I can't walk across the room. I don't think I envy the Tom Cruises of the world in that regard. I'm OK with it. My friend tells me I'm a “stealth celebrity.” If I want somebody to know who I am, I whisper in their ear or something.
You are, in a sense, a deep-seated part of many people’s childhoods. What has that aspect of your career meant to you?
Boy, that's for sure. I have so many stories: grown adults will come up and say, "You really just saved me. You got us through." And it's like, "Wait – what, now? What, now?" "Well, my mom had to lock us in ..." and there's so many stories and they're so similar, and I feel it's an honor. It just humbles me. Puts me on my knees. I could be here all day.
I've called any number of kids in the hospital, in truly dire straits, and I think honestly that's one of the biggest rewards. And it's inevitably the moms and dads that get on the phone afterward, because their little five-year-old has just had God knows what happened, or has cancer, all the maladies out there. And they'll get on the phone and they'll be in tears. And then I'm a puddle, and then I can't talk anymore. "She hasn't smiled in six months, and she's giggling," and it's like “Oh, God. Thank you, but I can't take it!” But that's the biggest bonus, I think. So sweet.
Do you have any special souvenirs from any of your voice-acting experiences?
I never stole anything from the set! What are you talking about? Who is this man? I don't have to answer that! I did not steal this hat! No, I'm sorry. What was the question again?
Actually, I've gotten a few things, and one sweet story was that Burny Mattinson was still an animator at Disney, and back in the original when they made the very first Winnie the Pooh, his wife made plush dolls, and she had heard about it, and she made a Winnie the Pooh doll, and she gave it to him and said, "Would Walt like to use this in the opening scene?" and he said, "Oh my gosh, this is beautiful, hun, but we shot it last week." And she's like, "Oh, no. Oh well."
And then she passed on subsequently, and then, what? 40 years later we did the 2011 Winnie the Pooh and his son went up to the attic, brought it back down and said, "Look what I found, dad." And that stuffed bear is in the opening scene of the 2011 Winnie the Pooh. Fun facts to know and tell!
Did you have your own dearly beloved childhood toy?
Well, I guess Michael: I have my own teddy bear. He's still around and I have four daughters, and if ever they have had a nightmare, they get Michael because he's got all the hugs and love, and you can't have a nightmare when Michael's there.
Darkwing Duck is a character that is very near and dear to your heart. In this moment of superheroes everywhere, can we hope? Will there be more Darkwing in the future?
[As Darkwing] That's funny you ask me, Launchpad! It's interesting, but all I can tell you is “Stay dangerous!”0comments
Disney's Christopher Robin is now showing in theaters.