‘Christopher Robin’ Review

The loss of innocence and the revitalization of life is one of the oldest and most beloved tales in Western mythology. From It to The Little Prince, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Mary Poppins, variations on these ideas can be found etched into our DNA. So in Disney’s quest to mine the collective unconscious for new angles, as well as find fresh takes on their most beloved stories, the studio has brought forth Christopher Robin, a film that’s rough around the edges and sometimes forgets its magical roots, but ultimately serves as a smart new take on a cherished tale.

In the late 1940s, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) struggles under the pressures of everyday life. Long gone are the days when he could do “nothing” in the Hundred Acre Wood with his many “friends,” including his beloved teddy bear Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings); now, Christopher finds himself haunted by World War II, struggling to stay afloat at work, and failing to make time for his lovely wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). When Robin’s boss, Giles Winslow, Jr. (Mark Gatiss), instructs him to find a way to cut 20% of the budget or lose his entire staff instead of spending one last vacation with his family before young Madeline is shipped off to boarding school, he finds himself at the end of his rope. That is, until a certain bear of very little brain shows up, ready to help his dear friend remember what’s most important in life.

What I like most about this film is how simple the writing is. This may sound like I’m being condescending, but it’s really some of the highest praise I can give. Director Marc Forster knows that he’s working with archetypal mythology here, and he uses that to his advantage. I mean, what’s wrong with combining Hook with It’s a Wonderful Life? Those are two great films with a great message, and if it works, why complicate things? Christopher Robing enjoys – and, in fact, thrives on – taking well-worn tropes and utilizing them as jumping-off points. Take, for example, the idea of having Christopher become a jaded older man. This by itself works well enough – I mean, it worked for Hook. However, Robin goes the extra mile by giving him a reason for forgetting about Pooh, and thus necessitating his return. A brilliantly shot montage shows us that not only does Robin have to adjust to the real world, but he does so through a series of dying fathers, abusive teachers, and traumatic wartime experiences. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before from the genre, and it works to establish our protagonist’s mental state. This is a children’s film that takes risks with its story, from Terrence Malick-esque cinematography to a wonderfully grim piece of surrealism involving a Heffalump. However, through all these bold choices and innovative ideas, it manages to achieve the most important feat of all: it manages to capture the feeling of Winnie the Pooh. Again, this may sound easy or condescending, but I cannot stress enough how refreshing it is to have these characters onscreen, embodied with groundbreaking special effects, and providing the audience with their usual childlike shenanigans. The third act stands tall with the works of A.A. Milne, and the final shot in particular is the embodiment of the magic and nostalgia that this film hoped to capture. Everywhere you turn in this film, there’s something to like, even in areas where you least expect it.

Unfortunately, while the majority of the film is a small triumph, the film is also far from perfect. Most of these issues stem from the script, which suffers from too many cooks, each with their own style (specifically Rothian indie darling Alex Ross Perry, Spotlight helm Tom McCarthy, and Hidden Figures writer Allison Schroder). You can actively feel the story and the characterization being pulled in too many different directions, from depressing to uplifting to avant-garde, often in the same scene. This creates a power struggle between the nostalgic humor and the utter bleakness, and little of it is told with the wry devilishness of Milne or Wolfgang Reitherman. Furthermore, because of the need to rush through key plot points to get past the week characterization, the whole thing often ends up feeling too neat, failing to connect point A and Point B. Robin spends so much of the first act, and even the second, as a morose manic-depressive, to the point that while the result of his transformation (a wonderful sequence involving Eeyore) feels exhilarating, it doesn’t quite feel earned through growth. I also take umbrage with several of the film’s attempts to wring tears from its audience. While most of the film is appropriately dependent on emotional provocation, and earns its tears outright (look to the key usage of the words “lost” and “found” in one scene and tell me afterwards that you didn’t cry), the film still finds itself veering towards manipulation – is there any need for a scene where Christopher Robin literally fires Winnie the Pooh? Why is such a cruel-hearted scene even necessary? Who is it for? Kids will leave terrified, while adults will leave flabbergasted at this treatment of their childhood. It may not be gilding the lily, but it certainly is burning the lily alive. There’s also a matter of the film’s “villain,” who feels less at home here in a Hundred Acre Wood-adjacent London than he would on the set of a Hallmark movie, sneering such child-friendly lines as “I thought you would do anything for this company” and “We’ll need to fire the entire department by the end of the week for efficiency.” While Mark Gatiss does a wonderful job with the role, it feels out of place with the core demographic. And while I’m diving deeper, while I appreciate the return of Disney Legend Richard Sherman as lead songwriter, and I understand the metaphorical implications of a man who never lost his inner child writing the songs for a film about a man reclaiming his, I don’t think it was fair to ask a near-ninety-year-old man to attempt to write and sing these songs solo. It just amplifies a weakening voice and waning songwriting ability, and dampens the experience of both the film and hearing a new Sherman piece.

Still, I can’t be too hard on this film, especially when the acting does most of the heavy lifting, both from real people and from the vocal work. Ewan McGregor in this film is, in particular, nothing short of remarkable. He portrays Robin not as a stuffy coot, but as a man who has had the sparkle in his eye beaten down significantly by the real world, and yet still has it buried deep down within him, like a modern day George Bailey. He manages to run the gamut from PTSD-ridden depressive to warm-hearted child with relative ease, and he does it while acting alongside inanimate objects. And when he hugs Pooh while wearing a tweed sweater, it will melt your heart. Also worth noting is Hayley Atwell, who doesn’t get a lot to do, but as is the case with most of her performances, she does it well. There are one or two monologues that contain some right proper gems, and she manages to make them crackle across the screen with panache. The rest of the humans range from the very good (Oliver Ford Davies and a team of three British comedians in Matt Berry, Simon Farnaby, and Mackenzie Crook) to the modest (as said before, Gatiss is doing his best with this material) to the underwhelming (Bronte Carmichael is fairly uninteresting as Christopher’s daughter), but let’s face it; you don’t care about the humans in this movie. You want to know about the gang from Christopher’s childhood days. Well, they are as wonderful as you remember, even if many of them tend to serve as mere cameos as opposed to fully-fledged roles. For example, Peter Capaldi and Toby Jones, show up as Rabbit and Owl, respectively, and while neither sounds remotely like their predecessor, they do manage to capture the essence of the roles in the short period of time they are onscreen. The same goes for Sophie Okonedo as Kanga and Sara Sheen as little Roo. However, there are four roles and three actors that have an adequate amount of screentime, and each of them deserves a heaping of praise. Nick Mohammed’s Piglet is an entertaining basket of nerves, and provides a sweet levity that cannot be found in his constituents. Meanwhile, Brad Garrett steals the movie as Eeyore, who has much larger role than the character has ever had previously. Thankfully, Garrett adds his own spin to things, creating an even more-morose donkey with a newfound suicidal streak, and somehow this still manages to work. It also allows certain lines Garrett delivers to contain extra weight that they may not otherwise (it helps that Garrett is a talented actor who knows how to find emotion even in humorous deliveries). However, if there’s anyone who emerges from this film as a star outside of McGregor, it’s the 65-year-old man who has brought both Pooh and Tigger to life for almost thirty years, Jim Cummings. Cummings has done several variations on Pooh for a very long time, but there’s something about this one that feels like a magnum opus. Maybe it’s because he gets to play a Pooh transported into the big city. Maybe it’s because he gets to play with emotions unfamiliar with the Pooh character (depression, loneliness, mourning, etc.). Or maybe it’s because he has flawless chemistry with McGregor. Whatever the reason, Cummings takes a seventy-year-old character that could be stale and gives him a vital new direction unlike any we’ve seen before, and I for one adored it.

In the end, my thoughts on Christopher Robin can best be summed up by the emotions I currently feel now, a week after seeing this film. This is a Winnie the Pooh movie, and should fill audiences with a nostalgic, childlike glee. However, I just can’t shake the feeling of melancholy that this film has left me with. Winnie the Pooh is supposed to be Great Britain’s Neighbor Totoro, but this film treats him like he’s in Grave of the Fireflies. It is wonderfully told, marvelously made, and gloriously acted, and yet thanks to issues with its script and the execution, it doesn’t quite reach the high bars it sets for itself. Christopher Robin undeniably lands on target, but it just misses the bullseye.

B

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