Christopher Robin

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.


The Meg

Cast: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Writers: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber

There are some movies that wear their hearts on their sleeves; you don’t need to see so much as a trailer or a poster to know what you’re getting yourself into. The premise alone, ‘Jason Statham fights a gigantic, prehistoric shark’, tells you everything you could possibly need to know before buying a ticket. It’s exactly the same as hearing ‘The Rock battles three giant mutant monsters’ and ‘Samuel L. Jackson is trapped on a plane overrun with snakes’. The story doesn’t matter. The director doesn’t matter. The supporting cast and the characters they play don’t matter. The only question any prospective viewer needs to ask themselves is, ‘Do I want to watch a hard-as-nails, cockney movie star punch a 50-ft. CGI shark?’ The movie is perfectly aware of this and knows what kind of flick the target audience is going to expect: a dumb, fun B-Movie Jaws. It’s going to be silly, clichéd and over the top. All that remains to be seen is whether it’ll be the right kind of silly, clichéd and over the top.

The set up is promising enough. A marine research facility financed by the smug, Elon Muskish billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) is sending a scouting team to explore the deepest depths of the ocean floor. The vessel is attacked by a very large creature upon arrival, causing them to lose contact with the main base. A rescue operation needs to happen ASAP and there’s only one man who can lead it. Enter Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a hard-boiled, Jason Stathamish figure who led a similar rescue five years earlier on a wrecked nuclear submarine. He was forced to abandon the operation midway through upon realising that they had been attacked by a giant beast and that it was coming back for them. Those he was able to save were brought back safely but nobody believed him about the underwater monster, instead figuring that he cracked under the pressure. Today the disgraced and cynical Jonas spends his days alone drowning his sorrows with beer. He is approached by his former boss Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao), who asks him to return once again. Jonas refuses but changes his mind when he learns that the captain of the trapped vessel is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

This takes up the first third of the movie and, while some set up is necessary if only to get us from point A to point B, the film (much like last year’s Kong: Skull Island) tests the viewer’s patience by spending too much time on getting all the human characters together, exploring their connections and detailing the ins and outs of marine exploration. We’re introduced to the other members of Zhang’s crew, including his oceanographer daughter and eligible bachelorette (a fact the movie never fails to bring up whenever Jonas notices her) Suyin (Bingbing Li) and her adorable daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai), along with Mac (Cliff Curtis), Jaxx (Ruby Rose) and DJ (Page Kennedy). Even after Jonas submerges his way to the ocean trench where the crew is helplessly stranded, rescues all but one (RIP Hiro Nakamura) and has his second encounter with what turns out to be a Megaladon (Meg for short), an enormous, prehistoric shark thought long extinct, it doesn’t feel like the movie has actually begun until the finned menace emerges at the surface to wreak havoc around the halfway point.

The movies does pick up at this point as we’re treated to a series of man versus shark sequences, one involving one of those shark diving tanks, one involving a collapsing crane and one involving the worst tourism commercial for the Chinese seaside you could possibly imagine. And yet, even with all the PG-13 blood and gore they could get away with and all the craziness Statham is allowed to do, it still never felt like the movie ever soared like it needed to. There are signs that there is a much wilder movie lurking beneath the surface that is being held on a leash. It’s somewhere between the choppy edits that hide the bits that we aren’t supposed to see. It’s written on Statham’s face as he delivers a far grittier and steelier performance than the material seems to warrant. What the movie is essentially trying to build up is this Captain Ahab/Moby Dick battle royale with a bit of Jaws thrown in but it never manages to reach that level in terms of scale, intensity or awesomeness.

Part of the problem is that, for a movie about a giant shark, The Meg doesn’t have very much of the shark in it. That’s fine if your name is Spielberg, you’re a master at crafting suspense and you know exactly how to use your central characters to keep the audience invested and engaged, otherwise it’s a problem. In the first two scenes we get with the Meg, its kept largely obscured by the darkness of the ocean depths and the deliberately unrevealing camera angles. Then when the second half takes off and the real movie starts, the only times we’re allowed a proper look at the man-eating fiend is through jump scares, meaning we’re never even given time to ever take its scale or the threat it poses in. What’s meant to make the Megalodon more threatening than the Great White that took on Brody, Quint and Hooper is its behemoth size, and yet it appears that the movie is largely uninterested in exploring that side of the beast until the very end when it happens upon a densely crowded beach. Until we reach that point and finally get to watch the movie that The Meg should have been from the start, what we get is mostly stilted scenes trying to invest us in character stories that occasionally get interrupted by a mildly thrilling shark attack.

In the middle of it all is Statham, an actor who’s always up for a laugh, taking on the serious role of a man seeking redemption. Statham is usually more at home playing the cheeky, morally ambiguous tough guy who’s forced to turn good, but here he’s playing a noble, heroic character with a little bit of shade who pretty much remains that way all the way through. He commits to the role but does seem a bit lost without anything roguish to do. He shares most of his many non-shark scenes with Li’s Suyin with whom just about everyone in the movie, not least of which her father and daughter and his ex-wife, are determined to ship from the word go. The two share little chemistry (I feel the language barrier may have been a factor here as Li was asked to act in her non-native language) and their romance is one of the many minor subplots that makes you wish the movie would just get back to the shark already. Another such subplot is that of greedy billionaire Jack Morris who is obsessively determined to exploit the carnivorous leviathan for profit. How exactly he plans to do this is about as clear as how the elves in South Park plan to make a profit out of stealing underwear.

The movie’s saving grace is that it has some semblance of personality to it that sets it apart from such forgettable, maritime sci-fi/fantasy thrillers as Battleship and Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge. Much of this has to do with the co-production effort between the Unites States and China, which means that as well as including Chinese actors who stand as titans in their own country but are less well known in Western cinema, the movie also instils some characteristically Chinese values into its story. The sacredness of fatherhood and motherhood are given prominence in Suyin’s relationship with her father and daughter, certain characters express remorse for mistakes that led to mishap and death (unheard of in American blockbusters where seldom a moment is made to contemplate and mourn the loss of life) and the ultra macho Statham is allowed to be warm and tender when talking to little Meiying in a way that a more typically American movie might have deemed too emasculating. These are all story elements that I wish could have been done better if the movie really was intended to be driven more by character than by spectacle the way Jaws was, but their very inclusion is nevertheless welcome in this partly American blockbuster.

The movie’s ultimate failure is that it is neither smart nor dumb enough to be the best version of what it could have been. The movie is self-aware enough of its own absurdity to understand that they have licence to get away with some pretty fantastic and silly things and is at its best when it embraces that fancy. When we reach the climax and are finally allowed to appreciate the sheer size of the Meg and the threat it poses to the thousands of clueless civilians innocently enjoying a nice sunny day at the beach, it sets us up for what is by far the most enjoyable part of the film. A guy tries making a run for it in one of those giant, plastic hamster balls. A tiny, immaculately groomed dog goes for a dip in the ocean and then frantically tries to paddle away from the looming danger. Jason Statham jumps into the sea and takes on the shark one-on-one. There is so much unrealised potential in this movie and so many places where they could have gone further and been even crazier. The Meg too often feels like its being restrained and being forced to suppress its baser instincts rather than free itself to be the movie it really wants to be.


Ant-Man and the Wasp

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harrison, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas

Director: Peyton Reed

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari

In Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe beheld an apocalyptic reckoning. Earth’s mightiest heroes banded together to combat the greatest threat the universe had ever seen and were instead utterly defeated. But, before the world came to an end with a bang and a whimper, before the sun turned black and the moon became as blood and the stars of heaven fell unto the Earth, before the Avengers beheld Shiva the God of Death and Destroyer of Worlds, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) found himself caught up in a sticky situation involving a shrunken quantum laboratory being thrown around, a ghost-like figure phasing through walls and a human-sized ant playing the drums. In truth Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the respite we needed after the operatic tragedy of Thanos and his cataclysmic crusade. This latest adventure in the MCU is light-hearted, fun and a total breeze to watch.

As a result of his actions in Civil War, in which he commandeered a shrinking suit and made off for Europe to aid Captain America in direct violation of the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang has spent the last two years under heavy house arrest. He does what he can to support his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston) and to help Luis (Michael Peña) in setting up their new security business, but there’s only so much Scott can do when chained to an ankle monitor that goes off the second he sets a foot outdoors and with parole officer Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) breathing down his neck, just waiting for a chance to catch him with his pants down. Another consequence of joining Cap (and destroying the suit rather than let it be confiscated) is that former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and former girlfriend Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) want nothing more to do with Scott. They’ve cut all ties and have dedicated themselves towards finding a way into the Quantum Realm where they believe Pym’s wife Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) might still be saved after getting trapped there thirty years ago.

A breakthrough is reached when Scott receives what appears to be a message from the Quantum Realm. Convinced that this must have been sent by Janet, Pym and Hope reluctantly decide that they need his help to find her. They liberate Scott from his confinement and take him to their secret and, thanks to the wonders of shrinking technology, portable laboratory. Before the gateway to the Quantum Realm can be opened there is a particular machine part they need to obtain from black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). The deal goes south once Burch realises the economic potential of Pym’s research, leading to a clash between his goons and Hope in the new and improved wasp suit. Their skirmish is interrupted by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a masked figure with the ability to move through solid objects. She seizes the lab in its shrunken suitcase-sized state and absconds with it, leading to an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse where Scott, Hope and Pym must track the intangible thief down, recover the lab and rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm before their window of opportunity closes.

After the galactic catastrophe of Infinity War, the ideological conflict of Black Panther and the cartoonish sci-fi extravaganza of Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp is an MCU movie that feels a lot more grounded and down to earth with stakes that feel much more human-sized and personal. Pym’s ultimate goal is to rescue his wife. Scott’s biggest concern is getting through the next couple of days without getting caught breaching his house arrest so that he can start rebuilding his life with his family. Even the villain is revealed not to have any kind of overtly political, economic or moral motivation compelling her but is instead acting out purely from a place of tremendous pain. This allows for the kind of superhero movie that doesn’t need to be an epic or a spectacle; you can just enjoy it for the fun side story that it is. There is no attempt to make this movie feel epic, dark or all that serious because that’s not the movie it wants or needs to be. This is ultimately a B-story in the MCU canon and proud of it; all it wants is to get you to care about these characters and have some thrills and laughs along the way.

One way that this movie improves on the first Ant-Man is the action. The idea of pitting a hero who can shrink and grow at will was already enough to make for a viscerally gratifying experience but this time not only do they increase the scale (literally in one scene), they also add in a few extra factors. One is the titular heroine who not only possesses the same abilities as Ant-Man but is also a better fighter and can fly (I wonder if there’s a veiled reference somewhere in there to Ginger Rogers doing what Fred Astaire did backwards and in heels). Another is the antagonist who can phase through solid objects. Together they combine to create some of the most creative action in any modern Hollywood blockbuster. In the movie’s first proper action scene, Wasp takes out a whole bunch of hired goons using a combination of shrinking/enlarging technology and aerial hand-to-hand combat which is interrupted by the arrival of ghost whose use of phasing adds an entirely different dimension to the fight. Later there’s a car chase scene where the use of a shrinking vehicle leads to some neat surprises. These are accomplished by an inspired use of CGI, choreography and framing and made for an action movie that feels distinct from the rest of the Marvel properties.

Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t just an action movie though, it’s also a comedy and a funny one at that. Part of the credit belongs to the cast, particularly Rudd who is effortlessly charming in his hapless, goofy way, Lilly whose eye-rolling, business-like demeanour gets played more for laughs, and Peña who continues to steal every scene he’s in. The bulk of the credit though goes to Reed and his team of screenwriters and their understanding of cinema’s capacity for visual comedy. The Ant-Man films are essentially high-budget screwball comedies with a sci-fi twist and the humour goes far beyond the use of situation and dialogue that most modern American flicks tend to rely on. The action scenes often give way to uproarious slapstick. There’s the continued use of idiosyncratically staged re-enactments to accompany Luis’ baffling, rambling narrations. There’s a scene where Reed’s use of framing and blocking allows for Ghost to unexpectedly reveal her presence in a hilarious way. There’s also a scene where Paul Rudd has to pretend to be another character, leading to some wonderful physical comedy. The laughs are numerous and they never get tiring because it isn’t all done in just one style.

The film does have two weaknesses. One is that it takes the movie a while to get going. The story is pretty messy as it tries to weave several subplots together into a coherent whole. As well as the main stories concerning Pym’s rescue plan, Scott’s house arrest and Ghost’s arc, we have Luis trying to save his new security business from falling under, the attempts by the weapon dealer and his goons to recover their merchandise, Scott’s ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) checking in every now and then so that Scott’s private life remains in the picture, and the introduction of Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) and their shared history. There’s a lot of ground to cover and the first-half of the film has to get through a lot of plot pushing and exposition dropping before the movie can really take off. Oftentimes the movie’s screenplay feels like it was cobbled together by a sizeable committee of writers (which, well… it was). The other main weakness is that Wasp, despite being one of the titular characters, doesn’t have as prominent a role as Ant-Man or her father. Although she gets plenty to do in the action scenes, she isn’t given enough of an arc or a large enough presence in the movie to justify her role as more than a supporting player in what is clearly the Ant-Men’s story.

All in all, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t the best at what it does nor is it really the best of what Marvel has to offer, but it is certainly more than enough for what it wants and needs to be. It does take a while to truly get there but, once all the pieces are in place and it can get started with the good stuff, it’s exactly the film you want it to be. The second half of the film is nothing but inventive fight and chase scenes coupled with outlandish comedy routines, all depicted with visual splendour and wit (another highlight is Scott asking for the villain’s help so that he can video-chat with his daughter in what is supposed to be a tense moment). The relief this movie provides from Marvel’s most recent offering is welcome and the film itself is self-contained enough that you won’t be distracted by tangential asides for world-building nor will you need to have seen any other movie but the first Ant-Man to be invested in what’s happening. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it has one or two touching scenes and it’s a blast to watch.