Christopher Robin is the latest film from Disney and asks the question “What if Christopher Robin grew up and lost his way?” On the surface, that question brings to mind the movie Hook, but where that film was filled with joy, Christopher Robin is a film that is quite gloomy (which I’m sure is music to Eeyore’s ears). To me, this is one of the most frustrating films of the year, because there is a lot to love and admire when watching the film, yet I never felt the film was clicking on all cylinders. Here is a brief plot synopsis.
A young Christopher Robin is getting ready to leave for boarding school, so the gang of the Hundred Acre Wood decide to have a goodbye party for Christopher. Before Christopher leaves, he promises Winnie the Pooh that he will never forget him. In a montage, we see Christopher going off to boarding school, learn that his father has died, meet the woman of his dreams, marries her and goes off to war, leaving his now pregnant wife behind. When he returns home, he lands a job as an efficiency expert (which I think they wrote that way as it just sounds like such a soul crushing job simply by saying the job title) at a luggage company and begins to care more about his work then his family. His interactions with his daughter are forced and awkward, especially because he wants to send her to boarding school, as he credits it with making him the man that he is today. He makes her focus more on her studies and books than going out and just being a kid that likes to have fun. The family is getting ready to go away for a weekend, but Christopher’s boss wants him to cut costs by 20% at the luggage company and have the report on his desk for Monday, causing Christopher to stay at home and work instead of being with his family. Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh wakes up and cannot find any of his friends, so he goes on a quest to find the door that Christopher Robin used as a child to find him (this reminded me a bit of The Nightmare Before Christmas although I’m not sure that was an intended reference by the screenwriters/director). This takes Pooh to London, where he meets up with adult Christopher and they begin their journey to help Pooh find his friends, while at the same time help Christopher rediscover what really is important in this world.
There is a lot to like about Christopher Robin and I will start off by saying that I quite enjoyed the look of the film. In the opening, they use an effect, where scenes freeze and look to become pages out of A.A. Milne’s book, which I thought was a nice visual touch. People have said to me that they didn’t like the look of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo in the film, but I thought it was quite effective. I was happy that they didn’t make them real animals, as that wouldn’t be in the true spirit of the books and film, so the CGI stuffed animal look suited the film.
The voice work for the film is great with a special mention to Jim Cummings as Winnie the Pooh and Brad Garrett as Eeyore. Cummings, to my surprise, has been the voice of Pooh since 1988 and Garrett (best known for his work on Everybody Loves Raymond) perfectly captures Eeyore’s bleak view on life and gets the best lines of the film. The rest of the voice actors are fine, but it’s these two that shine the most and were able to bring me back to my youth and smile.
Ewan McGregor is one of the best actors in film today. I always enjoy seeing him in a film, because he takes on such varying roles, that I can never typecast him. It is a thrill to watch him work in the third act of this film, as there is such a joy in his performance as he rediscovers the happiness of his youth. It’s a small scene late in the film, but my favourite moment is when Christopher Robin is taking the train and he starts saying words to what he is seeing through the window. It is a stark contrast to earlier in the film when he gets mad at Pooh for doing the same thing, but the giddiness of him doing this reminded me of the film Babe when James Cromwell’s Farmer Hoggett sings “If I Had Words”. In both cases, the actors convey a sense of such joy, that the only thing the audience can do is smile, which is something that I desperately wanted to do more of when watching Christopher Robin.
The word “smile” was in my brain a lot when watching the film, because I was constantly asking myself if the film was earning them. For an original sequence like the one mentioned in the paragraph above, I would say yes, but most of the smiles in the film are not necessarily earned from the film itself, but rather from nostalgic references that happen from time to time. When you hear the notes to Winnie the Pooh’s theme, or when Tigger sings his theme song and even hearing Eeyore’s view on life will probably fill you up with joy. There are other things like references to Heffalumps and Woozles, Pooh’s love of honey and Tigger spelling his name “T-I-Double Guh-Err” that bring that same sense of happiness that you had when you watched the cartoon or read the books as a kid. For hardcore fans of the animated films, Richard Sherman (who is one half of the revered musical composers The Sherman Brothers and is responsible for some of Disney’s most famous songs, which you can learn more about by watching the documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story) even performs a song in the film. It’s great that these touches exist and I know that screenwriters Alex Ross Perry and Alison Schroeder and director Marc Forster are fans of the material that they are working with, but I never felt the film earned the same reaction from any original touch that was in the film (with the noted exception in the above paragraph). In fact, another great sequence in the film is when Christopher Robin and Pooh are at a train station. Pooh’s sense of wonder to everything that he sees is fantastic, because he is exactly like a child (or a bear with very little brain) would be when they see new things for the first time. Nostalgia creeps back in during the sequence as Pooh wants a red balloon and carries that around with him during the sequence, which is the same colour of balloon that he had in his classic Disney adventures, so I never knew if I was smiling because of the red balloon reference or because of Pooh’s innocence to everything he sees. That’s what makes the film so frustrating to me, because I kept asking myself these questions throughout, instead of being able to sit back and be taken into the world of Christopher Robin.
There are some definite missteps in the film, with the big one being the depressing tone of the first two acts. Watching Christopher Robin being sent to boarding school, lose his father and go off to war is a tough beginning for any film, but what makes it even more depressing is that we see how soulless his life has become because all Christopher Robin cares about is work and there is not a lot of joy in his household with his wife and daughter (Side note – great work by the casting department by having Hayley Atwell in this film, as I think she is a criminally underrated actress). Director Marc Forster seems to want to drive home the point of how dark and glum Christopher’s life is, so Act III can have a very big redemptive feel, but he makes everything so bleak to the point of nausea, which ruins the pace and flow of the film. The only time things brighten up is when Pooh is on screen, but even he disappears for a chunk of Act II. Plus, it’s hard to watch Ewan McGregor play a depressed character, as he is an actor that is so full of life in most of his films, that when he gets his redemption at the end, you’re not cheering for him, but instead you say to yourself that it’s about time that he gets to experience some joy. Marc Forster is more than capable of directing a film that deals with the joy and hardships of growing up (see his 2004 film Finding Neverland or Spike Jonze’s 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are for films that have similar subject matter and are done better than Christopher Robin), but this film never feels that it finds its groove. There is a great film in here somewhere, but unfortunately the current edit of Christopher Robin is not that film.
I really wanted to like Christopher Robin. I have always loved the characters and stories from my youth and I liked the Hook inspired take on the material. Even though the voice work is outstanding, the story is slow and plodding that when the end credits hit, you think you’ve watched a three hour film instead of a 1h44m film. I plan on buying this film when it comes out and I look forward to re-watching it many times, even though it might be the most frustrating film of the year. I give this film 2 out of 4 stars.