Last year, there was a little film that came out that sought to darken the Winnie the Pooh mythos by delving into its creation by way of author A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin Milne. It was called Goodbye Christopher Robin, and though obviously bred to be an awards season contender, didn’t do a whole lot of business critically or commercially. It was fairly middle-of-the-road family drama stuff, that couldn’t quite clinch the emotional payoff it was so desperately going for. Good news for Disney, as cut to ten months later they’ve released their own live-action grounding of Winnie the Pooh, except this time they’ve set it inside the diegesis and simply titled it Christopher Robin, taking the animated characters and introducing them to the real world. Now, nine times out of ten that kind of formula is merely the result of lazy writing and backfires immensely. One need only look at the big-screen versions of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle or The Smurfs to comprehend just how wrong that can go. Fortunately, however, Christopher Robin is the one out of those ten tries, largely due to the directorial finesse of Marc Forster, who had previously darkened Peter Pan with Finding Neverland and is hopefully back to what he does best after his angsty phase doing Quantum of Solace and World War Z. And though Christopher Robin may not be the most emotionally impactful Disney movie on the market right now, it’s surprising just how visually confident and charming its core characters remain even in a wholly different medium.
In Christopher Robin, the now grown Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is finding conflict in balancing his work and home life after returning from World War II. While he stays home to work, his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) go off to sojourn at his childhood cottage without him. But Christopher Robin isn’t alone for long, as he’s soon visited by an old friend: Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings). Unfortunately, Pooh’s friends have gone missing, and so persuades Christopher to take him back to the Hundred Acre Woods to find them. There, and unbeknownst to the nearby Evelyn and Madeline, Christopher is forced to confront his own childhood upbringing if he’s to find his old friends and restore balance to his life. But perhaps he’s not there to save them. Perhaps Pooh, Tigger (also Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett) and company are back to save him.
So yeah, this movie gets pretty existential at times, almost to the point that it looks and feels like a Terrence Malick movie. There are whole scenes early on in the Hundred Acre Woods that are as emotionally distressing as you’ll in any Disney film. Seriously, there are parts of this movie that – if you partook in anything Winnie the Pooh when you were growing up – will challenge your childhood memories and make you kinda sad. Having said that, this is absolutely a movie for real-life Christopher Robins who really did forget their friends from the Hundred Acre Wood and might need to be reminded the importance of having your honey and eating it too. I’m not saying it’s totally inaccessible to kids, the characters being familiarly whimsical enough to stimulate the imagination station of the brain, but it’s adults who will really get the most mileage out of this one. And while its character arcs have been pretty played out over the years, especially in family films, it’s the returning animated characters that still have the kind of everlasting charm that you could plop them into any scenario and lift the spirits of those on the other side of the screen. And for those of you deterred by the CGI on Pooh and Tigger and everyone else boding a serious problem for a film, it really, really doesn’t. The dialogue and performances will keep you entertained to the point that you’ll forget they were ever hand-drawn. But seriously, the special effects are seamless and stunning, and no, never in a million years did I think I would ever say that about a Winnie the Pooh movie.
Of course, the real MVPs of these various incarnations of Winnie the Pooh are the voice cast, Jim Cummings in particular as Pooh and Tigger. Unfortunately, he’s the only real voice actor to reprise his roles, as the more recognizable voices for characters like Piglet and Rabbit, for instance, John Fielder and Ken Sansom, respectively, have sadly passed away. However, Disney has seemingly done an inspired job at finding replacements, deftly casting the likes of Toby Jones as Owl, Peter Capaldi as Rabbit, and perhaps most perfectly, Brad Garrett as Eeyore. Granted, this is still Cummings’s movie when all is said and done, as I’m sure few can imagine Pooh being voiced by anyone else. And while the story begins to shine once that silly old bear comes back into the foray, it’s his rapport with Ewan McGregor’s Christopher Robin that really solidifies the success of the film. Of course, there have been plenty of actors who’ve had to emote at some nothing that will only eventually be digitally added later, like Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Brendan Fraser in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and Mark Whalberg in Ted, and I’m not saying this one is the superior of the bunch, but damn if it’s not impressive when it’s done right. And some sort of recognition should go McGregor’s way, as he’s the perfect comedic foil for Winnie the Pooh.
Now if we’re really nitpicking here, one of the few weak spots is the story. As I’ve already mentioned, the whole workaholic father who needs to get in touch with his inner child in order to connect with his family paradigm has been done before to the point that this movie might as well be the British Elf. But beyond that, Christopher Robin falls into a structure trap that I like to call the “Tale of Two Acts,” if you will. Essentially, this can be divided into two distinct plots, the first of which involving Christopher Robin escorting Pooh back to the Hundred Acre Woods on a search for their friends. The second involves the more notable Hundred Acre Woods denizens going on a wild escapade throughout real-world London. I won’t go into too much specifics there else I pretty much spoil the rest of the movie, but there you have it. You see, usually there’s a singular goal the protagonists are trying to achieve throughout the through line of any story. You start off by giving them wants and desires, things get complicated, the characters adapt, and usually they accomplish that thing while also learning something along the way. And while that may be dumbing it down, you’d be surprised how much storytelling falls into that formula. Here, however, it never really feels like the two halves make a cohesive whole. Instead, one is merely a product of the other, and as a result Christopher Robin is simply two succinct short films stapled together to make one feature-length. If you asked me which half felt more important in the grand scheme of things, I’d pick Christopher Robin’s identity crisis in the Hundred Acre Wood in the first half, which in that case wholly undercuts the climax and ultimate conclusion of the piece.
However, chances are, Cummings and McGregor and company will prove too gosh-darn likable for it to really affect your enjoyment of the film. Not to mention it’s a technically marvelous piece of cinema that rivals the better of Disney’s live-action adaptations. So while Christopher Robin may be narratively and thematically mundane, at worst it’s a pleasant stroll down memory lane and at best it’s a, well, even better stroll down memory lane. And with there having been now five theatrically released Winnie the Pooh movies this century, I really do think it’s against my nature to disparage anything involving that silly old bear.
Final Score: 7/10