It’s got to be difficult to find a new angle on such a beloved character as Winnie-the-Pooh, who has been a cultural icon for nearly a century, since the publication of A.A. Milne’s first Winnie-the-Pooh book in 1926, inspired by his own son, Christopher Robin Milne, and his stuffed animal friends. His adventures and expeditions have lived on through films and Saturday morning cartoons, merchandise and toys. To give Pooh a new twist, Disney has enlisted director Marc Forster to give the honey-loving bear – you guessed it – a gritty reboot.
Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder, Greg Brooker, and Mark Steven Johnson all contributed to the screenplay, which seeks to place Pooh and pals, including Christopher Robin (played by Orton O’Brien and Ewan MacGregor), in historical context. In an opening sequence, Christopher Robin leaves behind his animal friends – stuffed and real – in the Hundred Acre Wood, and sets off for boarding school, World War II, marriage, a family, and a job, a lot like the real Christopher Robin Milne did. But what happens to those toys and friends and childhood memories that we leave behind? If you’ve ever anthropomorphized your stuffed animals, this movie will tug at those heartstrings.
What “Christopher Robin” elicits is that sense of nostalgia for childhood, when all we had to do was play. Winnie-the-Pooh is a rotund little philosopher of the simple pleasures in life – food, friendship and fun. He lives by the mantra that “doing nothing often leads to the very best something,” a belief that his best friend Christopher Robin once espoused, before he left that all behind for his job as an efficiency specialist at a luggage company. He’s far too busy for holidays (ironic, considering his line of work), his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). With all this busy-ness, he’s entirely lost himself, and what he needs is a little bear in a red shirt to remind him of who he really is.
The aesthetic that Forster brings to the film is an entirely new one for the Poohniverse. It’s dark, shrouded in fog, and nearly Malick-ian in its poetic treatment of an unstructured childhood spent in nature. The opening of the film is quite poignant, especially when contrasted with the corporate drudge life that Christopher Robin now leads.
However, it seems as if all these writers just didn’t know where to go from that deeply emotional place, and so they throw standard-issue set pieces from children’s movies at the story – magical portals, a race against the clock, a chase through the big city, an inspiring speech. It’s as if every single film aimed at children needs to include these elements.
It’s strange because this doesn’t seem to be a film for children. It’s a family drama about a grown man learning to embrace the lessons he learned in childhood – that quality time and play make you who you are, which is a human being, not a worker drone. For kids, these lessons and their execution might not have quite the same impact as they will on adults.
What keeps “Christopher Robin” together, naturally, is Pooh himself. The fuzzy stuffed bear in a knit shirt with glassy black eyes and a stitched nose is voiced by longtime Winnie-the-Pooh voice actor Jim Cummings, and his performance is truly wonderful, as the endearing, funny, and good-natured friend to all. Even though the story around him is at times questionable, the performance and realistic animated rendering of this character is the perfect distillation of Winnie-the-Pooh’s essential, philosophical self.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Cast: Ewan MacGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Jim Cummings, Mark Gatiss
Director: Marc Forster
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Rated: PG for some action.