Steven Spielberg’s disdain for his “Peter Pan Grew Up” movie, Hook, is well-known. Long and indulgent in its color-coded excesses, the filmmaker still acts chagrined about not doing a Pan movie with the wonder he imagined, and embarrassed of the merciless ribbing it received by fellow adults in the very unmagical profession of film criticism. I bring this up only because it seems so apt a comparison to Christopher Robin that even the latter’s filmmakers appear to have Hook on the mind.
Essentially Disney’s own childhood legend coming of a certain age tale, Christopher Robin imagines a deeply wistful sequel about an adult Christopher dropping in on his Hundred Acre friends, including everyone’s perennially favorite teddy in need of a pair of pants, Winnie the Pooh. In many ways a complement to Hook, and almost certainly a reaction to the perceived mistakes therein, Christopher Robin’s echo is all the more noticeable since it is directed by Marc Forster, the filmmaker who many critics credited with saving Peter Pan on screen in 2003’s Finding Neverland, a charming revision of how J.M. Barrie conceived of the boy who never grew up. The irony for this particular critic, however, is that in his own Neverland-dreaming years, when Winnie the Pooh was as good a friend as any in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, Hook was a personal favorite, and one whose nostalgic fairy dust still clouds any alleged flaws. Yet does growing up into a remarkably non-magical muggle mean one cannot return to the Hundred Acre Wood for Disney’s own tale of fantasies gone by? To be honest, it’s a bit of a muddle to decide, since Forster’s film is also reluctant to fully rekindle childhood joy through an adult’s eyes.
Likely responding too cautiously to the supposed failings of another director’s dalliance with whimsy in middle age, Forster’s Christopher Robin is an often gray and reserved picture, returning to a more resigned era of English culture directly in the post-World War II years. A vet himself, the adult Christopher Robin we find here is a buttoned up and beaten down middle class father and husband. His London is beleaguered, and the Hundred Acre Wood he’s drawn to isn’t exactly a picnic either; it’s usually drenched in an oppressive fog and still color-corrected into a drab silver during sunnier afternoons.
And yet, despite the bizarre choice to mute the golden hue of childhood reveries, Christopher Robin still somewhat succeeds because of one highly impressive feat: realizing Pooh Bear and all his friends in the exceeding warmth and leisurely comfort that first made A.A. Milne’s bedtime stories so endearing in the wake of another very gray world war.
Digitally recreated with a kind of ginger simplicity, Pooh, Tigger, and especially Eeyore are a beguiling delight to see on screen, computer-generated but unlike the garish attempts to make “realistic” versions of cartoon characters in Disney’s own Beauty and the Beast from last year. Forster’s film embraces their timeless charm by making them all essentially talking teddy bears. Akin to watching a brigade of stuffed animals pleasantly stroll across the screen, when the film is focused on the unburdened concerns of Pooh (who is voiced as ever in the last 30 years by a perfect Jim Cummings) and his unconditional love for Christopher Robin—and balloons—the film finds its inner-child. Also among the animated cast, Eeyore’s sad sack routine especially steals the show, allowing Brad Garrett to vocalize self-pity’s most comically whiny tenor. It’s just curious how long it takes to get to the point where even Robin cannot resist the donkey’s pity parties.
Set in the late ‘40s, middle-aged Christopher (Ewan McGregor) doesn’t have time for his own child Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), never mind memories of youth. His wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell in a fairly thankless role) tut-tuts Christopher’s obsession with work, but when his company is threatening layoffs of the division he is responsible for, it is hard not to sympathize with his need to stay in town over the weekend in an attempt to save employees’ jobs. Still, this is evidently part of a depressing pattern in which he puts his job before his family, who leave him for the countryside cottage of his childhood. Yet pastoral beauty comes to him as Winnie the Pooh discovers his old pal sitting on a park bench.
Christopher might be at his lowest, but Pooh doesn’t mind. He simply has a few questions: Are you Christopher Robin? Can you help me find my friends? And do you have honey?
It’s a clever setup, but other than tender moments of Pooh having his way with a jar of honey, it takes an awful long time for Christopher Robin to accept he must return to the Hundred Acre Wood, and once there that his real life is comprised of family and friends, even if the latter are themselves entirely comprised of fluffy stuffing. Intriguingly, the movie accepts Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and the whole gang are no more than stuffed animals but it plays fast and loose with whether these critters sprung from Robin’s imagination or not, as other folks can see them talking, including Madeline who ends up replacing Christopher as Pooh’s most trusted human sidekick during the third act climax rush back to London.
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With a fixation on extreme close-ups of the animals, and a desire to drink too deepy from the underlying melancholy of aging, Forster’s approach to Christopher Robin is the antithesis of Hook, happily accepting diminished imagination and the realization that the past can never be so glorious as you remember it. However, when it is ready to concede to a bit of fun, Forster’s direction does benefit with its willingness to move gently through its ethereal dream, mindfully accepting that quiet can be just as enticing to children as bright colors and rapid-fire gags. Taking a moment to slow down with Pooh or Eeyore from time to time, and letting McGregor showcase his still winsome and youthful energy that the Scottish actor has never lost like so many of his contemporaries, suggests a canny understanding of the soothing nature of Milne’s creation.
Christopher Robin is an uneven film, and one that leaves an open question as to whether children of an especially young age—Winnie the Pooh’s target demographic—will be able to sit through almost an hour of the mundanities of adulthood. But on the whole, the film’s ability to look past its own graying sensibility and see the timeless appeal of kindness (and honey) in the form of a rotund little bear proves we don’t have to stop believing. Even grown-ups, and in this case maybe only grown-ups, can adore Pooh Bear.