Arctophiles who like Disney animations can have great fun building a collection based entirely around Disney bears, as Kathy Martin reveals
When you think of the number of animals Disney have immortalised in their animations over the years, it’s surprising how rarely bears have been featured.
Pictured right: Steiff Winnie the Pooh, 20 inches, made in 2004 exclusively for the UK and USA in a limited edition of 3,500
After all, the bear – in its teddy form – is the world’s favourite soft toy animal so you’d expect a canny merchandiser like Disney to have a whole galaxy of bear characters to tempt us with. Perhaps their reticence stems from the fact that since 1961 they have owned the film and licencing rights to Winne the Pooh, the ultimate A-list bear, and it’s hard for any other bruin to compete with him in the popularity stakes.
Disney certainly show no reticence when it comes to making the most of Pooh – in their own stores he is sold in numerous different guises while the world’s leading toy manufacturers compete for the right to produce their versions under licence. The result is that fans of Pooh can build a hugely varied and interesting collection, especially if they are prepared to seek out vintage examples.
Pictured right: Baloo, Steiff, 2003
In 1966 Merrythought’s catalogue included a fully jointed 10-inch mohair Pooh as well as a 24-inch ‘Showpiece’ version and a Pooh nightdress case. The following year he was back as a 9-inch ‘Chime’ toy which had arms but not legs, and also as a ‘Pooh in Bed’ pyjama or nightdress sachet. More modern interpretations of Pooh have come from Gabrielle Designs, Gund, Golden Bear, Steiff, Canterbury Bears, Dean’s and Hermann Teddy Original amongst others, and there’s every reason to suppose that further names will be added to the list as Disney strive to satisfy the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for all things Pooh. However, anyone wanting to add one of Steiff’s gorgeous versions of Pooh to their collection should hurry because no more will be made after 31st March 2007.
There is no denying that Winnie the Pooh is ‘Top Bear’ in the Disney empire but there are other bears to be found if one is prepared to search for them. For example, from the 2003 movie Brother Bear, there are two really delightful bear characters called Koda and Kenai. Following the release of the film, beautiful soft toy versions of these two could be found in Dis ney Stores and they made a reappearance in 2006 when the follow up, Brother Bear 2, was released on DVD. Although Koda and Kenai are supposed to look more like real bears than teddies, they have the cute faces and super-soft plush necessary to make them very appealing to children.
Pictured right: Canterbury Bears Pooh and friends, made under licence for Japan in 2006
Another ‘real’ bear from the Disney stable is Baloo, the laid back, fun loving bear who shows young Mowgli how to survive in the jungle in Disney’s 1967 hit movie, The Jungle Book. Soft toy versions of Baloo have been produced since the 1960s, and two of the most successful came from Steiff. The first Steiff Baloo was produced shortly after the release of The Jungle Book as part of a set that included the other main characters from film. Complete sets occasionally turn up at auction and are subject to fierce bidding – it’s not unusual to have to pay £700 or £800 for them. Then in 2003 Steff returned to Baloo as part of their Disney Showcase Collection, creating a very attractive limited edition version which was made from mohair and measured 33cm high. These are quite easy to get hold of today – specialist retailers occasionally still have them in stock and they frequently turn up on internet auction sites. Expect to pay around £140.
For those on a tight budgets, charming plush versions of Baloo can be found inexpensively on the secondary market. For example, a 12-inch Baloo made in Sri Lanka for The Disney Store was purchased for less than a pound in a charity shop. In good, clean condition it makes a worthwhile addition to any Disney bear collection, as do the small beanie-type toys which are also easy to find.
Phil Harris, the voice actor who played the part of Baloo in The Jungle Book, took the part of another bear in the Disney version of Robin Hood. Released in 1973, the film portrayed all the main characters as animals and it was decided that the outsized Little John should be a bear. Although it had its good points, the film was not a massive success and as a result merchandise is less widely available than that associated with big hits like The Jungle Book. Nevertheless, if you search (particularly on internet stores and auction sites) it is possible to buy Little John plush toys, plastic figurines, pin badges and so on. Prices range from £2 to £15.
Pictured left: Plush version of Kenai from Brother Bear
There have been successful Disney bears on the small screen, too. Notable amongst these are the Gummi Bears which starred in their own television series from the middle of the 1980s through to the early 1990s. There were seven main characters – Zuffi, Grammi, Gruffi, Tummi, Sunni, Cubbi and Gusto – all of which were produced in soft toy form. They rarely cost more than two or three pounds on the secondary market. Although the show came to an end in 1991, it may be familiar to youngsters of today thanks to re-runs on satellite and cable TV. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Gummi Bears is that the idea for the show came from the Gummi Bear sweets; we’re all familiar with characters such as the Milky Bar Kid, the Milcha cow or the Lindt bunny that have been created specifically to promote confectionery but there can’t be too many instances of confectionery inspiring hit TV shows.
Disney owe the popularity of another of their TV bears to the genius that was Jim Henson. Fozzie Bear was one of the most memorable characters from The Muppets, the puppet characters created by the late Jim Henson, and he has belonged to Disney since they bought The Muppet rights in 2004.
There’s a Jim Henson connection between Fozzie and Bear in the Big Blue House, one of the most recent bears to make it big for Disney. The Jim Henson Company pro duces Bear in the Big Blue House, a charming, semi-educational show for pre-school children, for Disney. It differs from other shows aimed at younger children (Barney, for instance) in that adults can watch it without feeling nauseous. This is due in large part to the appeal of the eponymous Bear. He’s seven feet high, bright orange, gentle and funny, and he’s a pretty good dancer, too. There’s another bear in the show – a young cub caled Ojo who is one of Bear’s best friends.
Pictured right: The embroidery on this Koda’s paw indicates it came from Disneyland Paris
Plush Bear and Ojo toys were widely available a years or so ago, as were battery operated versions of Bear which played the show’s theme tune while dancing. Some Disney Stores may still stock them but if not, they’re easily found and cheaply bought at car boot sales or on the internet. It’s also an idea to keep a look out for the small Bear in the Big Blue House toys that were given away with McDonalds Happy Meals a few years ago.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a 2002 Disney offering that didn’t make it to the cinemas in the UK because it was considered ‘too American’. Based on a Disneyland attraction, The Country Bears mixes real actors with puppet animation. Since it went straight to DVD in the UK, it’s unlikely that much merchandise made it over here so watch out for Country Bears plush toys if you’re heading to the US this year, otherwise browsing the internet should prove fruitful.