Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder
What I find most puzzling about Christopher Robin, Disney’s kinda/sorta live-action sequel to the animated films, is that I’m not sure who it was made for. The fact that the story was inspired by A.A. Milne’s stories for children and features its characters would suggest that this is a children’s film. However the story itself has less to do with the antics of Winnie the Pooh and company and more with the growing pains of the titular Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor). We first see Christopher as the young boy from the stories spending a final day with his imaginary (or are they?) friends before he’s due to start boarding school and embark on his journey into adulthood. Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eyore and the rest of the enchanted creatures of the Hundred Acres Wood throw a farewell party where Christopher makes a solemn promise to the absent-minded bear that he will never forget any of them.
We are then treated to a montage depicting the formative years of Christopher’s life. We see him conform to the Victorian values of his education, lose his father, fall in love, become a parent, go to war, and finally settle into a dull but secure job with a luggage company. It’s a wonderful montage in the vein of Up where, through the strong use of imagery with minimal dialogue, we are given a nuanced understanding of how the playful, imaginative boy whose best friend was a talking, yellow bear became this humourless, all-work-no-play grown up who spends his days performing mundane tasks in a stuffy office. It’s a sequence that splendidly captures the spirit of the wartime age that the real Christopher Robin, Milne’s son, grew up in. His was a generation that was always struggling and striving as they endured the Great Depression and the Second World War where every man and woman was expected to do their bit. The film takes place in the postwar landscape where the rebuilding process in England is still ongoing and former soldiers like Christopher have found solace from the battlefield in tediously boring but financially steady jobs.
While the protagonist serving as a symbol of lost childhood is not unheard of in kid’s films, Hook being a classic example, the solemn seriousness with which the film treated Christopher’s growth did have me wondering whether his story would be at all relatable to children. This is a major concern because the film devotes so much of its time towards exploring the particulars of his life as an adult before Pooh and his other childhood friends re-enter the picture. Amongst his daily struggles are his marriage to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), which is being strained by his inability to make time for his family, his fatherhood of Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), whom he treats with such formality and discipline so as to be completely blind to her desire for childhood fantasies and adventures, and his job as an efficiency expert at Winslow Luggage where he answers to the smarmy Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When Giles demands that Christopher draft a plan to reduce the company’s expenditure by 20%, foiling his weekend plans for a countryside retreat with his family, Christopher becomes overwhelmed by the stress of protecting his staff from these cuts and the widening gulf between him and his wife and daughter. His salvation comes at this moment in the unexpected form of the Pooh Bear from his youth.
At this point you would probably expect the film to progress into a playful, enchanting family adventure and, to an extent, that is what happens. Christopher returns Pooh to the Hundred Acre Wood and is reunited with his friends. What we see however as we enter the magical realm is not an animated, technicolour fairy tale world like Oz; it’s a more naturalistic landscape with a muted colour palette. The lifelike imagery is similarly extended to Christopher’s friends. Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eyore, all of whom were based on the stuffed animals that had belonged to Milne’s son, are recreated here as the living toys that they are with the matted fur and faded colours that come from years of being played with and left out in the sun. These designs, as well as those of Owl and Rabbit who are portrayed as an actual owl and rabbit, are so wonderfully animated and finely textured, you almost feel like they could climb right out of the screen and enter our own world The film’s commitment to maintaining its sombre, tone, even in a land entirely divorced from gloomy, postwar London, reinforces the notion that Christopher Robin is less interested in being a bright, lively children’s escapade than it is a thoughtful, elegiac kind of experience like Where the Wild Things Are. There are certainly elements of Spike Jonze to be found here, as well as those of the introspective, evocative films of Terrence Malick.
The screenplay, penned by an unlikely trio for a children’s Disney film in indie writer Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy (Oscar winner for Spotlight) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), is largely concerned with teaching Christopher (and the audience) the value of holding on to one’s childhood, living in the moment, and making time for what’s important. In his effort to reconcile with his family, resolve his workplace dilemma, and cling onto his sanity in his interactions with Pooh (“That’s a silly explanation” he remarks when inquiring how Pooh came to be in London, to which the clueless bear replies “Why thank you”), Christopher finds that he must rediscover a part of himself that was lost as he matured too quickly into adulthood. The film is very good at exploring his daily troubles but less so at solving them. Part of the conflict is that Christopher doesn’t have the luxury of reprioritisation between his personal and professional lives because too many people are depending on him to secure their continued employment. That is until Christopher comes up with a solution so simple, one could say that a child might have thought of it. Maybe that’s the point. But it also seems a little disingenuous to say that adult problems are easily fixable when the film seems so intent on treating its younger viewers as mature, thoughtful people.
Still, I do like that the film doesn’t talk down to children and that it adopted an approach to its story that we see so rarely in these kinds of films. If anything, I wish the film had committed to that approach more fully. For the most part it does a great job of maintaining the line between adult weightiness and childish whimsy with some light-hearted humour thrown in. Pooh, as affably played by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, is a joy in every scene he’s in, whether he is completely oblivious to Christopher’s exasperation, innocently commenting on the strange sights of the modern world, or delivering profoundly nonsensical philosophical gobbets without the slightest hint of irony (“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day” he muses in one instance). And yet the film does on occasion indulge itself in an attempt to generate some excitement that breaks up the predominating sense of calmness. One example of this is car chase scene that would not have been at all out of place in a Paddington film but here comes across as action for its own sake. For the mood they were going for, I think Christopher Robin would have benefitted enormously from following the example of My Neighbour Totoro, a film which needed neither a plot nor action to become a masterpiece in children’s animation.
The film is somewhat moving, often charming and admirably sophisticated, but it suffers from a clash in tone that I don’t think it’s ever able to fully reconcile. At times it’s too drab and melancholic for kids, at others it’s too fanciful for grown ups (I personally could have done without the animals being physically, literally real). I think there is room for the kind of movie that Christopher Robin is trying to be and I would point to Pete’s Dragon as a recent example that succeeded in being wondrous, joyful and enchanting while still being serious and restrained. The film is good at letting moments of calmness and stillness last and at finding joy and nuance in something as simple and trivial as holding a balloon or lying in the sun. If only it could have savoured just a little bit more of that quaintness, concentrated a little more on the experience than on the conflict and dug just a little bit deeper with its concepts and ideas. “Nothing comes from nothing”, the film often proclaims, and I wish that was a lesson it took to heart. If Christopher Robin were less inclined to guide its story along a formulaic, plot-driven line and allowed its themes and morals to develop more organically, the result could have been something great indeed.