(Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures via wdsmediafile)
CHRISTOPHER ROBIN– 3 STARS
The tough act for Disney’s Christopher Robin to follow isn’t the similarly-titled Goodbye Christopher Robin from last fall, though many parallels exist. Simon Curtis’ awards season contender followed Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne for a historical biography of the real subject and his family. The created narrative daydreams stayed on the written page. In contrast, Marc Forster’s film reverses that arrangement, thrusting the fantasy into the real world much like Steven Spielberg did to a broader and louder degree with Hook.
But this is Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood. Things move slower and sweeter than a brash boy who can fly while dueling pirates in Neverland. No buckles are swashed in this forest and the derring-do level is more happenstance than high adventure. Therefore, the charm for big screen audiences presented by Christopher Robin is one of wholesome whimsy stirred by timeless characters of imagination who come to walk among our domains. The challenge is we have seen that alluring dynamic done extremely already this year, it’s called Paddington 2. That’s the true tough act this film has to follow and it’s quite the tall order.
Similar to Robin Williams’ Peter Banning, the little boy who played in the woods with his stuffed animal friends had to put away childish things before being sent to boarding school for his formative years. Beginning with a quaint farewell party, the opening credits, paced with animated transitions stylized to match co-creator E.H. Shepard’s original illustrations, show Christopher Robin aging to become a steady man, played by Ewan McGregor. Christopher matured to meet and marry a kindly woman named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), share a spritely daughter named Madeline (On Chesil Beach newcomer Bronte Carmichael) with her, and survive the harrowing dangers of World War II.
Settled into middle-age, Christopher now works as a number cruncher and department head for a luggage company. Miserly strives for efficiency ordered by his lazy boss (The League of Gentlemen comedy alum Mark Gatiss) put the work of making necessary cost adjustments and budget cuts on Christopher. Those urgent deadlines and very important papers force him to cancel a fatherly promise in the form of attending a long-planned holiday weekend out to the Sussex cottage of his childhood, breaking his wife’s patience and his daughter’s heart.
All the while during these same 30 years, Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) and the gang remained behind in their magical coniferous confines and deciduous dwellings. In touching Toy Story-level fashion, Pooh checks back on Christopher Robin’s tree trunk house door daily with the ever-present hope that his friend will come back to play. One day, the inquisitive and slow-witted bear decides to go through the door himself and ends up in London virtually at the adult Christopher’s doorstep. Pooh’s reappearance throws off the workaholic who desperately tries to quickly return the bear to his true home and finish his work in time to save his career. Naturally, none of that is going to go as planned, sparking off episodes of playful pratfalls and merry mixups orchestrated by the screenplay written by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) and polished up by Hidden Figures Oscar nominee Allison Schroeder. Soon enough, young Madeline encounters Tigger (also Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) for her own chance at adventure.
Quite regrettably, too much of this Christopher Robin is the unoriginal time-wasting “get back home” story trope we have seen hundreds of times in better efforts. Considering the screenplay talent and former wunderkind Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, World War Z) at the helm, it is surprising to observe this movie’s plain level of tedium. MacGregor brings cheer where he can with his wide smile, but Atwell is merely another stock thankless wife given little to do when we know she can radiate (see Cinderella) in this landscape. Little other charisma exists that isn’t stuffed with CGI cotton. Furthermore, considering the Disney clout and the care the studio has shown these characters for over 50 years, more breadth could have really established something grander for attention, especially in view of the thin marketing push it is receiving compared to its prime summer box office slot.
That said, what does work exceedingly well is the tone. This is where Forster falls back on the gentle touch that put him on the map with Finding Neverland. Softness of tone is the important quality that had to be right, and that’s where the cuddly characters take over and save the picture. This minorly jarring introduction of photorealistic incarnations of these favorites quickly becomes easy on the eyes when their delightful words and actions win you over. Graceful veteran Jim Cummings, in his second film voicing Pooh, mirrors the disarming folksiness that has always been perfectly adorable. New addition Brad Garrett is a dead-eyed deliverer of deadpan zingers that steals the show. Toby Jones, Sophie Okonedo, and Peter Capaldi offer their vocal pathos as Owl, Kanga, and Rabbit to amplify the ensemble.
The messages wrapped up by this movie’s soft spirit may be achingly sympathetic and predictable simple. Pooh, at one point, says “it’s always a sunny day when Christopher Robin comes to play.” The teddy bear is right and he might as well be speaking for his place in all of our childhoods. Things are better when the many Milne stories and adaptations of this wonderment can still offer timeless reminders very suitable and highly beneficial for both the parental and youthful generations of filmgoers today that could use a little slowdown and imaginative play. Foibles aside, Christopher Robin is an unapologetic heart-melter. Earnestness comes easy and there is a place and, even better, a need, for this in the cinema marketplace.
LESSON #1: CLOSURE FOR CHILDHOOD — More often than not, Christopher Robin targets adults more than children with its themes. Maturation cannot mean erasure. In a sly reversal within the film, it’s the childhood fantasy (Pooh) that needs closure from the departed adult instead of the other way around. Some of the core behaviors of childhood like imagination, friendship, courage, and the ability to play need to be remembered and practiced even as an adult. Those important aspects will last even with younger years long behind.
LESSON #2: WHERE DO YOU PUT YOUR IMPORTANCE? — Speaking of importance, how one answers the statement of this life lesson automatically gets the follow-up question of “and does that make you happy?” If the answer doesn’t, you need to readjust whatever stresses are affected. Kids, go out and seek rewarding and imaginative uses of your time. Get dirty. Get in trouble. Parents, don’t be a “father of little brain.” Work is work and sometimes it is not possible to love what you do, but do your best to not let it ruin other aspects of your life. To both groups, take a break to connect, converse, and interact with friends and family. Share attention. Make memories not appointments. Good company like that is one of the best things in life, even if they’re made of weathered fabric.
LESSON #3: THE JOY OF DOING NOTHING — Lesson #2 may have chanted an encouragement to go out and seek quality time with others that could contain the big list of dirt, trouble, connection, conversation, and memories among other things. All those things can happen when there is downtime. Everyone needs a break sometimes. As this movie likes to say, “nothing leads to something.” Some of the best ideas come in unbusy moments. Get some free time and use it well to recharge yourself and strengthen your relationships.