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Disney lets girl into Winnie's world

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Maybe it's just the impossibly cozy nature of the 'hood, but for 80 years there has been no change in the resident line-up of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Guess who's coming for honey? As part of a barrel-full of Winnie the Pooh anniversary events, Disney is working on a new animated series that will replace Christopher Robin with a 6-year-old girl.

To quote one loquacious Rabbit: "Oh my, oh my, oh my goodness!"

Although the bear's party fare includes much Disney hoopla -- anniversary-themed goods, Disney Channel marathons and a stage show that kicks off today in New York -- the real bother is sure to be over tinkering with a classic.

Details are sketchy on the as-yet-nameless new arrival, who will make her debut in the 2007 computer-generated series My Friends Tigger and Pooh. Disney execs say the idea is to bring an older audience to an iconic franchise born when British author A.A. Milne began musing about the imaginary world of his son, Christopher Robin.

"We got raised eyebrows even in-house at first, but the feeling was these timeless characters really needed a breath of fresh air that only the introduction of someone new could provide," says Nancy Kanter of the Disney Channel.

The gamble could sweeten the pot of a company that already brings in $1 billion annually from Pooh merchandise, "more than all their core characters combined," says Thomas Ranese of marketing consultants Interbrand. "Pooh appears to be a robust brand that can handle expansion."

There could be a side benefit to luring new kids to this idyllic forest. Because today's tykes often get introduced to literary characters through their cartoon counterparts, "the hope is this will bring more kids to (Pooh) books," says Rory Halperin, who covers entertainment for Child magazine.

But some fans no doubt will feel that Winnie's world was fine just the way it was. "This strikes me as a step too far away from the vision of the original books," says Kathleen Horning, who trains children's book librarians at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Besides, growing up, I had no problem relating to Christopher Robin. He almost had a non-specific gender."

Disney's Kanter says the new cartoon represents not an abandonment of an old, familiar world, but rather an alternate universe for Pooh and his crew.

"Christopher Robin is still out there in the woods, playing," she says. "We hope people will fall for this new tomboyish girl. The last thing we want to be is the ones who brought the franchise down."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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