CHRISTOPHER ROBIN Review: Looks Like Mud, Smells Like Pooh
I'll say this up front: just about everything in Christopher Robin dealing with Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and friends is terrific.
The superb new designs of these childhood favourites evoke Ernest H. Shepard's classic illustrations, while incorporating elements of the Disney cartoons more familiar to contemporary audiences. Importantly, with the exception of Rabbit and Owl, these characters are unambiguously presented as stuffed animals - worn, threadbare stuffed animals, with a limited range of expression that makes them all the more endearing (except Tigger, who's only slightly less annoying than usual). A terrific voice cast is led by Jim Cummings and Brad Garrett, who as Pooh and Eeyore breathe heart-rendingly loveable life into their animated characters. Pooh's simple tastes and desires; Eeyore's resigned, self-aware glumness; and Piglet's nervous tics are all present and beautifully executed, both in writing and performance. An entire film about these animals, rendered in this Where the Wild Things Are-ish style, would be a must-see.
Unfortunately, any hopes of seeing classic Pooh adventures are dashed by the end of the film's unwieldy, Up-imitating, life-spanning prologue. This is a Winnie-the-Pooh movie with gritty Second World War scenes; where the cinematography is handheld and desaturated, the Hundred-Acre Wood a foggy place of foreboding. Ewan McGregor stars as an all growed-up version of Christopher Robin, whose life as a husband and father stands at odds with his career as an efficiency manager at a luggage company. Having lost his sense of fun and imagination, he’s in danger of losing touch with his wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael), thanks to constantly placing work above life. Until one fateful day, when a familiar, silly old bear stumbles back into his life…
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we all saw it nearly three decades ago in Steven Spielberg’s Hook - where, frankly, the story worked better.
For one thing, the magical realism in Christopher Robin feels off. In the books that the film clearly reveres, it was never concealed that Pooh and company were Christopher’s stuffed animals and imaginary friends. But in this movie, they’re real, living creatures, that exist in the real world, that everyone can see and hear. Adult Christopher almost instantaneously accepts Pooh as such, apparently less surprised to see Pooh as a walking, talking bear than he is to see him specifically in London. It’s a strange choice, at total odds with the stuffed-animal designs of the characters, and a missed opportunity to present them as projections of Christopher’s imagination (which could have yielded much more powerful storytelling rewards).
Otherwise, Christopher Robin dutifully cycles through the same story beats as Hook - right down to the “you’re doing it, Peter!” scene - though in an appropriately humbler manner. At least, it tries. Christopher Robin’s story is seriously broken, leaning on oft-repeated and wishy-washy statements of theme to coast through to its conclusion. The intention is that Christopher reconnects with his childhood friends in order to reconnect with his family, but rather than escaping with (or to save) his family, his adventure feels like an escape from his family, as he hangs out with Pooh & The Gang and consciously avoids those he claims to love most. Compounding the issue, Christopher doesn't even get to drive his own story - Pooh himself becomes a kind of second protagonist, muddying the narrative and robbing Christopher of agency. This is Christopher's story, and yet Pooh and friends are the most engaging characters - and the film feels split in twain as a result. McGregor gamely puts on his charming best, extracting some nice moments even as the only human onscreen in many scenes, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t elevate the thematically confused and cloying script.
We all knew this was going the way of Hook. Nobody's surprised there. But at least Peter Banning seemed to enjoy revisiting his childhood. Perhaps the most unforgivable of Christopher Robin's sins is just how leaden it feels. Though melancholy is a common emotion for Pooh characters, Marc Forster directs the entire film as a gloomy Sunday-afternoon drama - even when that tone directly contradicts the script. His direction displays zero sense of whimsy or comic timing, both of which are desperately needed to tell this story. Even the simplest pieces of physical comedy seem to have baffled Forster, resulting in clunkily cobbled-together sequences, and he even manages to suck the laughs out of a scene involving Mackenzie Crook, Simon Farnaby, and Matt fucking Berry.
Farnaby's presence in the film, too, raises the spectre of a certain other 2018 release about a beloved, spread-loving English bear. It's almost offensive how drab and lifeless this movie is in a year that also brought us Paddington 2, and the casting of that film's co-writer Farnaby only rubs honey in the wound. This film desperately needed a director with an eye for jokes and movement and lightness - someone who could offer something, anything to contrast with Christopher's humdrum work life. What it got was the guy who directed Quantum of Solace.
Finally, we have to talk about Christopher Robin Milne. Though best known as a character in his father's stories, Christopher was a real child, who grew up into a real adult. Why the producers elected to cherry-pick history as they did - keeping Christopher's war service, but changing the date of his father's death, altering the names of his family, banishing any mention of his daughter's cerebral palsy, and reassigning his occupation from bookstore-keeper to corporate suit - is a mystery. Lord knows his actual story, in which he never returned to Cotchford Farm and sought no involvement in Pooh royalties, detesting the books’ commercialisation, is decidedly inconvenient for Disney. Clearly the filmmakers have fictionalised Christopher Robin into a character, but that doesn't change how cringe-inducing the whole endeavour is.
The concluding message of Christopher Robin tell us not to work too hard, to live our lives, and - specifically - to go on holiday. Though admirable, that’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re barely scraping by. But then again: this is a movie by and for Disney executives, whose likely see themselves in both Christopher and his bosses (Mark Gatiss and Oliver Ford Davies). They’d like to see themselves as going through a similar change of heart, getting back to their own families - and thus, they produced a film where that happens. Bonus in hand, they can afford to go on holiday, the bastards.
As for the rest of us: hey, we'll always have Paddington.