“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
The famous last line of AA Milne’s The House At Pooh Corner seems like an unusual jumping-off point for a Disney version of Winnie The Pooh, but nevertheless, that’s where the new live-action sequel Christopher Robin starts its story, which echoes both Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Disney’s own Mary Poppins.
With an unexpectedly melancholic twist, the film follows Christopher Robin as he travels from Sussex to London, growing up into the shape of Ewan McGregor’s harried efficiency manager along the way. He dearly loves his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), but he’s waylaid from a much-needed holiday to his family’s old cottage by an impending deadline.
Staying behind in London, he’s astonished to run into Pooh (once again voiced by the magnificent Jim Cummings) outside his home. The bear of very little brain has stumbled into Christopher’s life again after losing track of his friends Piglet (Nick Mohamed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Tigger (also Cummings), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen). Naturally, an impromptu trip to the Hundred Acre Wood is the only thing that will restore normality and help Christopher realise that there’s more to life than work.
It’s not an especially hard-won lesson in most Disney films and so it goes here, for this rainy Sunday afternoon sort of movie. The film isn’t a total downer, but it’s also the only Pooh movie to be noted for having “brief war violence” by the BBFC. It’s a testament to the mega-watt charm of the film’s animated characters that a film that seems so overcast in its weather and its tone still comes across so sweetly.
Directed by Marc Forster, the film feels like it tried to avoid the Hook comparison at every turn. Where Spielberg’s film becomes adventurous, bordering on garish, after it arrives in Neverland, there’s a muted quality throughout the film’s 100 minute running time. Playing Christopher in much the same way as David Tomlinson played Mary Poppins‘ Mr Banks, McGregor quickly slips from incredulous to credulous, but the film doesn’t necessarily take that journey with him.
Maybe it’s the tone or maybe it’s the fact that the script comes from writers like Alex Ross Perry, Allison Schroeder, and Tom McCarthy that leaves you expecting it to pull something else out of the bag. There’s certainly not much ambiguity about whether or not Christopher might only be imagining the return of his childhood friends, but there’s also a lot of realism before you get to the magic, largely in the shape of Mark Gatiss sneering with Mycroftian superiority as McGregor’s shiftless superior.
The business end of the film will be hard-going for younger kids and that means we’ve essentially got a Winnie the Pooh film for older Winnie the Pooh fans, nostalgic in the same way as Christopher is. It would be nice if the film made more of passing things on to the next generation, but it does eventually get there when Carmichael and Atwell come back to the fore in the third act.
But the film’s undeniable charm comes from the plushy characters. Flawlessly designed for the live-action/CG hybrid, Pooh and his crew are gloriously substantial figures, rendered for maximum huggability and voiced perfectly. Cummings is reliably brilliant as both Pooh and Tigger and among the new voices Garrett’s Eeyore is a hilariously downbeat stand-out.
They’re expertly drawn in a way that leaves McGregor and just about everyone else playing it with a straight face. The closest the film comes to the great British comic stylings of the Paddington movies comes in a scene that comprises cameos by Simon Farnaby, Mackenzie Crook, and Matt Berry. Most of the time though, the toys alone are enough to get you chuckling appreciatively.
In a departure from straight live-action remakes like Beauty And The Beast or even revisionist takes like Maleficent or Pete’s Dragon, Christopher Robin feels like a continuation of the previous animated films, brought to live-action.
There are plenty of nods to Eeyore’s tail, Tigger’s song, and Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit’s hole (you, stop tittering at the back there) to firm up the connection, but it could arguably have stood to feel more like a live-action cartoon at times. At some points, the almost dreary cinematography makes it feel like a gift from Disney to those YouTubers who make spoof horror movie trailer edits from family-friendly movies.
That said, the live-action and voice cast alike are throwing themselves into this earnest follow-up to a series of films that will hold many fond memories for elder viewers. If you’re able to put last year’s Milne biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin out of your mind while watching McGregor’s fictionalised character grapple with his childhood, this is a fun summer holiday romp that gives some much-loved characters a fresh look, bundling up some laughs and some moving moments along the way.
Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.