Director: Marc Forster
Screenplay: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Bronte Carmichael, Brad Garrett, Mark Gatiss, Nick Mohammed
Runtime: 104 Minutes
There are so many ways in which Christopher Robin should feel like one of the most cynically put together nostalgia bait concepts that the Disney corporation have recently put out. Ostensibly a sequel or follow-up to their own animated adaptations of the Winnie the Pooh stories, it relies heavily on the audience’s familiarity with these characters as pop cultural artefacts, but very specifically the emotions that have been attached to them by the parents and adults who grew up marinated and surrounded by the ephemera of their own creations.
Pitched as another spin on the Hook narrative, the Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) of the original stories has grown up and lost his sense of imagination, buried beneath work duties and maligning the emotion requirements of being a husband to his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and a father to his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Only to be reunited with his old stuffed bear friend, Winnie-the-Pooh (Jim Cummings), at a crisis point in his life where he goes on a journey to rediscover his own lost youth in the Hundred Acre Wood with his old childhood playthings.
If the very sound of that is enough to send quivers of emotional distress at the sight of seeing another weapons-grade deployment of this narrative, wherein a man must recapture his youthful innocence in order to become a better father and husband, then the film has already done its job well enough as intended.
The structure has most of the second act spent in the woods with Christopher recapturing the imagination that fuelled his childhood while searching for his friends, and it’s by far and away the best stretch of the entire film. From smaller moments like Christopher diving into a stream braced to swim only to find he has grown considerably since his youth, to fighting off fictional heffalumps and woozles to comfort his friends, Ewen is superb in the role delivering his performance with gravity and humility.
The issue comes in the manner of balancing out the esoteric approach of the material with the more whimsical aspects of the characters, their world and conception. So, there’s a strange dissonance at play throughout the film as it’s warm autumnal hues and naturalistic photography and presentation are being used at times to present something far more buoyant and upbeat.
The sudden reawakening of Pooh at Christopher’s moment of crisis, and discovering his friends are missing amongst the thick and rainy fog that has descended upon the woods, couldn’t be a stronger visual stand-in for the physiological torment Christopher is under. The anxieties and strains of modern life taking him further away from his roots, and Pooh and friends very existence tying back to Christopher’s mental wellbeing.
It’s a great concept on paper, but one that the film doesn’t seem wholly committed too. There may have been a time when this was a project destined for something lower key, dealing with the furry friends as more metaphorical representations for Christopher than the very real presences that they end up being. Interacting with the outside world in the race for the finish third act where they enter post-war London for shenanigans.
It wants to be both a personal story and a faithful translation of the original Disney films into live action and can’t quite reconcile the dissonance. Children certainly won't notice, but it’s difficult to ignore when the film is clearly skewing itself toward the older generations as this is still Christopher’s story.
But that being said, the aesthetic isn’t at all conceptually bad. Director Marc Forster channels more than a little of his work on Finding Neverland here and the level of visual detail toward the lighting, worldly camerawork and grounded settings work very well at selling it as a reality. Even if he has absolutely no idea what to do when the film concerns physical comedy and he just ends up shooting it all in extreme and enclosed environments in which nothing can be discerned and all focus becomes lost.
The effects work in particular used to bring the stuffed animals to light is astonishingly realistic, with matted and cuddled fur changing in real-world conditions but retaining the defining moulds of the characters from their animated forms.
It helps that the voice work is also fantastic at selling them, keeping close to the original conceptions of the characters. Newcomers like Nick Mohammed and Brad Garrett are well judged as Piglet and Eeyore respectively.
The returning work of Jim Cummings being the standout as Pooh and Tigger, with Pooh’s confused but enduring dialogues of malapropisms there to open up humble conversations of far deeper personal and universal concepts regarding growing up, relationships and the nature of life and death. But it’s all delivered in a funny and heart-warming fashion, even when a conversation with Christopher turns to what “letting someone go” means professionally and what Pooh takes from that cuts devastatingly deep.
Christopher Robin has high ambitions on its mind and it’s very well-intentioned, and the two film’s that it’s trying to make might have worked better as their own entities. But there is still a wealth of emotional substance here that will work as a form of kryptonite to anyone closely attached to the versions of these characters presented. The performances are uniformly strong, it’s call-backs pitched effectively enough, and if only it had a stronger sense of what it wants to be this might have been a bigger winner than the admirable job that it is.