Review: Christopher Robin

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Marc Forster

Writer: Alex Ross Perry, Allison Schroeder

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett

Genre: Fantasy, Comedy, Drama

Rating: PG

I know some folks are not too keen on this movement in the Mouse House to do live action re-imaginings of their animated classics. “The death of creativity” is a subject discussed a great deal now with regard to film releases, and not without reason. Nearly all major movie outings at present are either sequels, prequels, remakes, spin-offs, or adaptations of one sort or another. Seeing something outside of that repetitive establishment more often would be welcome, but I’m largely in an approving stance about this current undertaking that Disney’s doing. They’re not all gems (Maleficent, anyone?), but they earn their place. Christopher Robin is the latest entry in the project, and there’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to it.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Early in the movie, young Christopher Robin’s father dies (not shown, but there’s sadness/a funeral). Brief World War II-era scenes show soldiers at war (guns, an explosion, non-graphic wounds) and Evelyn listening to a radio broadcast about war, projected casualties. Lots of physical comedy: falling/slipping/tripping, things bonking characters on the head. Some yelling/arguing. Christopher Robin falls, is knocked out; he has a scary dream of being underwater and seeing a monster. Pooh, other animals are incredibly frightened by the idea of monsters (Heffalumps, woozles, etc.); in a few scenes, their fear is underlined by tense music/cinematography that could frighten younger/more sensitive kids. Christopher Robin acts out a big fight with the “monsters.” It’s sad when Pooh can’t find his friends and the animals say goodbye to and then miss Christopher Robin. A taxi has a minor crash; animals fly through the air and hit a car windshield (they’re unharmed).

Language/Crude Humor: None.

Sexual Content: A couple embraces, dances, and shares a kiss.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Muddled thematic elements (more below).

Positive Content: Sweet, positive messages about the value of play, relaxation (“doing nothing”), and connecting with family. Being present for life and finding work-life balance are major themes of the story, as is the power of childlike imagination. Christopher Robin remembers to be grateful for everything he has in his life. There’s also a clear message at the end of the movie about why everyone, not just the rich, deserves time off to enjoy the countryside, nature, or just time with their families.

Review

So, as I was saying, the live-action Disney movies are a good idea in concept and generally successful on net balance. Sure, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a thudding disappointment, and Maleficent was painfully terrible, but those haven’t spoiled the barrel. Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella was absolutely magnificent. Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book was flawed in some places, but truly compelling in others. David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon managed to make that title actually worthy of attention with his 2016 remake. It should be very well established with this in mind that whatever your attitude about these entries, they should at least be judged individually on their own merits (or lack thereof).

Granted, there are some titles from the Disney vault that really ought not to be given the live action treatment for any number of reasons. A live-action version of Fantasia, for example, would defeat the very purpose of that film as a feature-length celebration of animation and music as an art form. There’s supposed to be a live-action redux of The Lion King in the pipeline, which also makes no sense as a concept. There are no human characters in that film, so all the characters can hope to be is CGI versions of the hand-drawn animated originals (which, yes, is just another form of animation). Sure, they could have a live-action element by superimposing the CGI renders against live video and photography of the backgrounds, but Disney did that way back in 2000 with Dinosaur, and guess what? That’s still considered an animated film. Because it is.

Well, whatever. We’ll deal with those problems as they come. As for now, we got Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin, an attempt at a modern take on the timeless works of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and the animated Disney productions inspired by it. Upon first seeing the teaser, I was definitely eager to fall in love with this film. Ewan McGregor made it perfectly clear in those short clips that he came to play with no restraints, and voice acting great Jim Cummings was pulling out all the stops as Pooh Bear himself. My biggest fear about this particular release was that the filmmakers wouldn’t quite understand the essence of what makes the stories of The Hundred Acre Wood what they are.

Some of the non-Milne Winnie the Pooh projects that Disney has done such as The Tigger Movie, Piglet’s Big Movie, and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie showed just such a lack of understanding about what essentially makes up the unique charm and identity of Pooh, his friends, and their adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood. These movies, hardly distinguishable from direct-to-video releases, made the fundamental mistake of trying to make the aimless, imaginative, and whimsical tales of Milne’s writings into a more conventional formula where the focus was unduly more on plot and didacticism rather than on the quirky mannerisms of how the characters themselves responded to and went through the situations.

In addition to the non-dramatic approach that was a staple of Milne’s writings, there are more broad thematic elements to Winnie the Pooh that need to be kept in mind if the integrity of the stories is to be maintained. The entirety of The Hundred Acre Wood is meant to be an intricate fabrication and embodiment of Christopher Robin’s own imagination; a place where only he could go and directly visit as it is. Pooh bear himself is the fluff-and-stuff manifestation of the very heart of early childhood: sweet, naïve, perfectly huggable, clumsy, simple of mind, big of heart, and a little self-indulgent.

The side characters of Milne’s tales were designed as full-bodied manifestations of various emotional states in the childhood id.  Tigger = Joy.  Eeyore = Sadness.  Piglet = Fear.  To put it bluntly, A. A. Milne was doing Inside Out before it was cool and in a more sophisticated fashion. Add on characters like Rabbit and Owl (who represent various facets of adult personality), and what we had was a diverse cast of characters with everlasting quality. (Of course, none of this is meant to disparage Inside Out. That movie is just about perfect.)

This is what I hoped the team behind Christopher Robin would grasp at least fundamentally. If you’re not going to do that much, there’s really no point having Milne’s classics as a basis or source of inspiration. How does this fare? Suffice it to say that it’s been some time since I was itching to make corrections to the film I was watching within the first five minutes.

Christopher Robin wishes to explore what it would be like if its title character (who has “Robin” as a surname rather than a middle name this time around) had to bear the responsibility of his actual life to the point he could no longer take refuge in his juvenile fantasies. This is not in itself a bad idea, and it could be done in a very fitting manner with Milne’s works. In fact, what is arguably the greatest film trilogy of all time, managed to pull this off famously.

From its very inception, Pixar’s Toy Story has as its focus the gradual and difficult acceptance of reality as the fantasies of childhood fade out from vision. In the first film, Buzz Lightyear had to come to terms with that fact that he was just a toy. In Toy Story 2, Woody had to come to terms with the fact that being a toy meant that he had an expiration date. After two films mulling over the fact that the joys of our youth don’t last forever (or even for very long), there was little else to do in the third entry except deliver the punchline.

I’m not suggesting that Christopher Robin be just a redux of Toy Story, even though there are some noteworthy parallels between the plots. This is only to submit a generic guideline for approach, and not even necessarily the best one. With that said, I can honestly say that there were errors in this film’s approach from the beginning.

The movie opens with a young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) having a going away party with his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood, ending on a bittersweet farewell with Pooh Bear while sitting on a log watching the sunset. After which, we are given a pastoral montage of key events along his pathway to manhood (the death of his father, getting married, fighting in the war, having a kid, etc.). And here was the problem hampering the whole affair. If we’re going to explore what brought Christopher Robin (played as an adult by Ewan McGregor) to detach himself so completely from the dear friends of his youthful imagination, a more gradual and subtle exploration of those critical events in his life unfolding as the plot progresses would have been more effective. With all those critical bits of character development thrown at us a mile a minute, we’re unable to empathize with those features in the characters’ conflicts.

Starting the movie right after the opening montage (with the occasional tasteful and creative use of flashbacks) would have made a notable improvement in the film’s initial structure. There are, quite sadly, other more crippling faults to this production that really ruin what should be a touching and endearing escape.

The central conflict in the story proper focuses on Christopher Robin facing an especially troubling dilemma in his job position as an efficiency expert at a luggage company. He finds himself having to forego a weekend getaway with his family to come up with an idea to reduce expenditures without laying off any employees. What’s odd about the way the film approaches the conflict is that Robin gets an earful from his wife (Hayley Atwell) as though he’s some sort of a selfish routine-obsessed workaholic. But by the film’s own reasoning, Christopher Robin giving priority to his job is done out of responsible selflessness, not irresponsible neglect. The whole dynamic was just bizarre almost to the point of being self-contradictory.

While that was the primary thematic inconsistency to the film, the big structural flaw was in how Pooh and his friends work into the plot. As I’ve always understood it, Pooh and the other members of the Hundred Acre Wood were always figments of Christopher Robin’s imagination–relics and projections of his own creative psyche given life through the literary tool of magical realism. The toys may have been real, but the characters were ones that only Christopher Robin himself could ever know in any real personal way. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.

Pooh re-enters the life of his best friend through an act of sheer happenstance and inexplicable serendipity. When arriving in Christopher Robin’s backyard after looking for his other animal friends in vain, Pooh immediately charms with all of the starry-eyed wonder and silliness we know him for. Once he’s established, it becomes clear that he’s being treated as an actual performer in the physical world, with other Londoners perfectly capable of seeing him move and speak.

At this point, the whole construction of the film weakens nearly to the point of dilapidation. To reference Inside Out again, imagine if Joy, Disgust, Fear, and the others were able to eject themselves from Riley’s headspace and play gags on her friends and family in the physical world. Think of how this would twist the entire arrangement of the film’s fictional setup out of shape. That’s essentially how Christopher Robin is contorted with almost wholly negative results.

What’s especially disappointing is that the filmmakers clearly know exactly how this movie was at least supposed to feel in a conceptual sense. The muted rustic visual aesthetic has been criticized by some, while others–myself included–found the approach to be quite effective in selling the idea of cherished things left behind and rediscovered in a moment of desperation. The CGI rendering of the characters also helped with the whole impression. I was happy to find that Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger were rendered out to appear as weather-worn stuffed toys come to life rather than photo-realistic talking animals (Rabbit and Owl, by contrast, are designed as flesh-and-blood animals of the woods).

Be that as it may, on net balance, what we find in Christopher Robin can be best represented by an early scene in which Pooh bear accidentally knocks over a jar of honey, and treks the sweet nectar all over the house while he wanders aimlessly making a fine mess of things. It’s sweet and funny on occasion (with Brad Garrett’s Eeyore delivering some of the biggest laughs), but there’s still a lot of internal damage to fix and mess to clean up.

Much of Pooh’s conversations with Christopher Robin consists in attempting to rekindle the latter’s sense of wonder and appreciation for the things and people he’s supposed to hold dear. There is real value to be found in this. It can be very helpful in facing the hardships of adulthood to view them through young eyes. Such a perspective can reveal solutions and approaches usually overlooked by more seasoned and methodical minds (a common Milne-esque refrain is “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.”).

Also, just for the sake of keeping yourself sorted as an individual, occasionally revisiting the valuable elements of youth can be not just a hollow saccharine indulgence, but a responsible act of maintenance. Madeleine L’Engle once wrote that “the great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” I’m glad that this movie recalled those valuable relics of the past, but I’m not too happy with what was done with them once received.

Near the climax of the film, we get a big sequence of Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet trekking across London to deliver some important documents to their old friend with the prerequisite gags and slapstick being delivered in abundance. That whole cycle reminded me too much of those live-action adaptations of The Smurfs, and now I’m sad that I even thought to write a sentence comparing a movie about Winnie the Pooh to The Smurfs.  Kyrie Eleison…

Mind you, the actors are really giving it their all with this outing. Ewan McGregor plays the eponymous Christopher Robin with palpable tenderness and restraint. I never caught a time in which his interacting with the CGI animals ever seemed forced or artificial. Jim Cummings gives a career-defining performance with his dead-on impressions of the original Disney voices of Pooh and Tigger (originally provided by Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell respectively). It really does feel at least like these characters have been resurrected from the corners of neglect that our minds tend to develop as we mature. If the rest of the film had the same level of refinement in its structure and sound thematic arrangement, this would have been a much more favorable review.

Honestly, dear reader, if you wish to get your Hundred Acre Wood fix, I’d strongly suggest revisiting the 2011 Winnie The Pooh animated film that seemed to fall out of too many people’s radars. Featuring adaptations of three Milne short stories, this was a fine homage to the wonder and genius of both Milne’s writings and Disney’s innovative take on their storybook charm. Treat yourself better than Disney is at the moment if you can.

Positives

+ Jim Cummings + Ewan McGregor + Genuinely sweet moments

Negatives

- Sweet moments aren’t earned - Badly structured plot - Badly structured thematic strains - Doesn’t get what Winnie the Pooh is about

The Bottom Line

Not just thematically but even structurally ill-conceived. Something as precious as Pooh and his friends deserves so much better than this. Like a lump of frosting with no cake, it’s very sweet, but greatly lacking in structure. I’d skip this one until Redbox day.

 

6.7

Tyrone Barnes

Leave a Reply