Movie Review: Like a handful of honey, ‘Christopher Robin’ is a sweet (if fleeting) experience
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael
Synopsis: A working-class family man, Christopher Robin, encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh, who helps him to rediscover the joys of life.
Christopher Robin is a sweeter, more coherent, less exhausting version of Steven Spielberg’s Hook. Instead of Peter Pan, the protagonist here is, you guessed it, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor). Young Christopher enjoyed years of fun and frivolity with his famous friends from the Hundred Acre Wood. However, that is all coming to and end, as his father is sending him to boarding school. Christopher will no longer be able to climb in and out of the Wood as he pleases. The film opens with a legitimately touching picnic between friends. There is an immediate understanding of the love that Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, and Roo have for Christopher Robin. In front of a beautiful sunset, there are fond speeches and an indulgent meal. Immediately, you can tell that Christopher Robin is going to be far more understated than any other Pooh story put on film. The early, and perhaps best, part of the film feels inspired far more by David Lowery’s subdued Pete’s Dragon than overblown Disney live-action adaptations like Alice and Wonderland or Beauty and the Beast. This is surely due, at least in part, to the influence of indie darling Alex Ross Perry, who wrote the film’s first draft.
There is an intimacy to the early scenes that define a world that is, at times, abandoned as the film goes on. After a montage showing us that Christopher Robin has grown up to be an uptight, work-obsessed man without his furry friends, the film loses a bit of steam. When we deal exclusively with human characters, the drama feels forced and contrived. Christopher has completely forgotten how to have fun and thinks every moment of the day should be used to better oneself. When his daughter (Bronte Carmichael) asks him to read her a story, he pulls out a textbook. When his wife (a wasted Haley Atwell) breaks out in dance, he shuts his office door in her face. Christopher works for a luggage company, focusing on company efficiency. Nearly all of the scenes showing the trials and tribulations of his job counteract the genuinely sweet moments experienced when Pooh and co. are on screen. Christopher’s work life is portrayed in a way that feels too silly to be relatable for older viewers and too mundane to be interesting for younger ones. His boss is controlling in the least-interesting ways imaginable and the objective of “cut costs by twenty percent in one weekend or your department will be terminated” is so broad that it takes away much of the narrative weight.
Christopher’s overwhelming work life forces him to skip out on a family trip to the countryside, much to the dismay of his wife and daughter. When he arrives home one day, he runs into a nearby courtyard to hide from his pesky neighbor to find his old friend, Winnie the Pooh, on the hunt for his friends, who he cannot find in the foggy Hundred Acre Wood. Unsurprisingly, this is when the story picks up steam. Pooh speaks in funny, Yoda-esque phrases (“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing everyday”) and waddles around in a constant state of honey withdrawal. Pooh is well-meaning and sincere, but his undying thirst for honey and curiosity when it comes to the new world around him provide for sweet comedy and an overall warm, fuzzy feeling.
Christopher Robin decides that he has to make sure that Pooh returns to the Wood, which means a trip to the portal by the house in the countryside where his family is staying (it makes absolutely no sense that Christopher’s character would, according to everything we have seen of him thus far, would lose basically an entire day of work for this, but sometimes it is best not to question the logic of a film starring a talking teddy bear). After a cute train ride with Pooh, Christopher returns to the Wood and helps his crop top-wearing, honey-loving friend find his friends. The design of the characters in the Wood is something that the makers of this film can hang their hat on. Without even having spoken a word, there is an attraction to them based on sheer cuteness. These versions of the characters are, no doubt, based on the characters popularized in the cartoons of the late 1980’s, which established a style that survived through the most recent Pooh theatrical film, 2011’s Winnie the Pooh.
This is driven home by the fact that Jim Cummings, who has been with the franchise since the creation of The New Adventures of Winnie Pooh in 1988, is still the voice of both Pooh and Tigger in Christopher Robin. This is in line with the vision of these live-action adaptations that have proven to be very lucrative for Disney. They are, at their best, heavily-inspired by but not completely tied down to their cartoon source material and, at their worst, insufferable nostalgia porn for 90’s kids (*cough cough* Beauty and the Beast *cough cough*). Cummings provides a sense of home for 20-to 30-somethings like me who grew up on his rendition of the two most iconic characters in the series. There was no need to make sure there was continuity when it came to the other characters, but the exclusion of Cummings would have been too much for many to handle, even if 99% of the audience wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup. His Pooh is tender and sweet, his Tigger rambunctious and brazen. Cummings makes the film work as much as anyone else.
After an utterly charming and delightful period in the Hundred Acre Wood where we are more properly introduced to the likes of Eeyore, Piglet, and Tigger (including a truly touching moment between Pooh and Christopher that brought tears to the eyes of both the viewers to my left and my right), Christopher returns home for a presentation to the board of his company that will decide the fate of his department. But, luckily, there is allot device that makes sure we get the motley crew of Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, and Eeyore sent chasing after Christopher Robin in London with the help of Christopher’s daughter. This scenario brings about the pretty great set pieces of the film that are silly, funny, and at least a little bit thrilling. Director Marc Forster presents the city as a flat, dull landscape where Pooh and his friends strikingly stand out, even with their slightly worn stitching. It is an unfortunate coincidence that the only stand out moments of the film occur when those characters are involved. The ending of the film is schmaltzy and leaves much to be desired, thematically, but at least we get a little more Pooh.
On a technical level, Christopher Robin is mostly unremarkable. Some of the visuals in the Hundred Acre are beautiful in their simplicity, but everything aside from that often feels flat. However, one cannot discount the sense of wonder that Forster is able to capture when we are exposed to Pooh’s curiosity, Eeyore’s charming melancholy, or Tigger’s fiery proclamations. The Pooh stuff really works! If only the rest of the film could have matched half the energy or inventiveness of those moments. The Hundred Acre Wood is a place of gentle wonder. The rest of the film leaves you wondering why you didn’t leave to get a refill of popcorn. It is a movie that will play better when you can skip the bad scenes and get to the “silly old bear”. You will laugh, you may cry, and then you will see yourself looking at your watch. See it for the number of great moments it has, but be prepared for the moments when you may find yourself dozing off like Pooh after one of his jars of honey.