Director: Mark Forster
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss
If you were born and raised in Great Britain, chances are your childhood is filled with memories pertaining to Winnie the Pooh, whether that be via A.A. Milne’s ever-popular children’s stories, the Disney animated adaptations or just by word of mouth. Even if your childhood wasn’t spent in Britain you’re probably still very familiar, as Pooh’s name has stretched globally, mostly thanks to Disney. The famous bear and his friends are held in the hearts of millions of people, and so when a film he features in is released it will always come under a lot of scrutiny. So how does Christopher Robin fit in to Winnie the Pooh’s enduring legacy, if it does at all?
Young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) enjoys whiling his days away in the Hundred Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, Winnie the Pooh (Cummings), Piglet (Mohammed), Eeyore (Garrett), Tigger (Cummings), Kanga (Okonedo) and Roo (Sheen), as well as two actual animals, Rabbit (Capaldi) and Owl (Jones). That is, until he is sent away to boarding school, not to see them again for forty years. After marrying Evelyn (Atwell), a lady he meets on a bus, and serving in the Second World War, the adult Christopher Robin (McGregor) works for a luggage-making company. The business has come under financial crises and needs to make serious changes post-haste lest they go under. Christopher Robin, who has become a very cynical, disillusioned workaholic, is given the task of finding where they can make cut backs, most likely at the expense of his co-workers. He is made to work through the weekend despite having made plans with his wife and daughter, Madeleine (Carmichael). Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Woods, Pooh has lost all of his friends, and needs help finding them again. Each in their hour of need, Christopher Robin and Pooh are reunited and help each other to solve their issues.
It’s probably important to make clear that Christopher Robin, though containing similarities to the real Christopher Robin’s life (A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne), is entirely fictional. The real Christopher Robin did go to war, and he did marry and have a daughter, but that’s about where the surface parallels end. If you’ve seen 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin, you’ll get more of a sense of Christopher Robin’s early life and his feelings towards Winnie the Pooh, both then and later in life, and the relationship with his own father. Christopher Robin paints quite a different character. In the beginning he is, as mentioned, very cynical and generally full of stress and the worries of life. Unfortunately it does make for a very dreary opener into the adult character’s life. It’s understandable that director Forster likely wanted to convey the character’s mental state and his blatant change from the young and imaginative boy he once was via the use of dull colour and generally grim mise-en-scène, but it bleeds too much into the audience’s minds and makes it rather boring and uninteresting.
There’s a lot of similarity between Christopher Robin and Steven Spielberg’s 1991 classic Hook, based on the story of J.M. Barrie’s fictional character Peter Pan (makes sense then to have Forster as director as he directed yet another similar film, 2004’s Finding Neverland). Both films feature an adult version of a younger boy who has forgotten who he used to be, and it takes a midlife crisis and potentially imaginary characters to ironically bring them back to reality and understand their children better and realise what truly matters in their lives. Even both of their wives have similar dialogue along the lines of missing out on their lives as they happen right in front of them. Christopher Robin doesn’t quite have the kick or the magic that Hook does (Robin Williams’ Peter Banning in Hook comes across better characteristically, in a sense, than McGregor’s Christopher Robin, and Hook had a John Williams score), though there’s still a lot to be said for its own potentially imaginary characters.
The film picks up instantly once we’re back with Pooh, his every line and tone of voice making him less a silly old bear than a witty old bear. His quips and positive outlook do exactly what they need to do in order to rouse the audience, though it’s a shame the story had already dipped so much, as it does then rest with Pooh to reengage the audience, which he does. The CGI characters look fantastic, Pooh in particular. His fur and the way he is animated when interacting with live actors is superb and expertly crafted. Eeyore too, as he spends a lot of time in Christopher Robin/McGregor’s arms. The toy characters in general are fairly good representations, part-Disney classic, part-storybook classic, with their look based on the original illustrations of Ernest Shepard.
Pooh is voiced once again by Disney favourite Jim Cummings, bringing a comforting familiarity to the character, as he also does with Tigger. Irish actor Chris O’Dowd was originally offered the role, using an English accent, but test audiences didn’t react so well to this, and so Cummings was brought on board. And thank goodness for that. A Disney Winnie the Pooh surely has to sound like Disney Winnie the Pooh, if possible, as does Disney Tigger. Other characters have brand new voice actors, all English (bar Eeyore’s Garrett) in order to bring back some authenticity in relation to where the stories were born, and all performers do a brilliant job. McGregor plays a fairly bland character, which probably goes a long way to explaining his character’s unexciting introduction toward the beginning of the film. McGregor himself is a fantastic actor, but this role might have been better suited to an up-and-comer with something to prove, as it seems below his level. Atwell brings a little flair to Evelyn which brightens up scenes between Christopher Robin and his wife, despite their relationship often being frosty. Carmichael is lovely enough as Madeleine; she and Atwell have some good onscreen mother/daughter chemistry. And for any fans of Matt Berry, Simon Farnaby and/or Mackenzie Crook, look out for their group cameo near the end. A fun little treat.
It’s hard to pinpoint who Christopher Robin is aimed at demographically. It’s a Winnie the Pooh film and has plenty for the kids, especially with its small revivals of the Sherman Brothers-created popular dittys, ‘Up, Down, Touch the Ground’ and ‘The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers’, but its themes and ultimate message seem directly aimed at adults. Perhaps this is a way to include parents and children, but the kids might seem more interested in something more colourful and easier to understand. There are plenty of things to laugh at, thanks to the stuffed characters’ dialogue, but once they’ve seen it it’s doubtful they’d be begging for it on DVD. The setting isn’t exactly timeless either, being post-WWII, and many parents and adults these days are more than aware that life means balance, whether they choose to follow that or not, so it can very much be seen as outdated. It has its moments for sure, but it’s rather disappointingly monotonous overall: sweet, but not ‘hunny’-sweet. A live-action Winnie the Pooh should have been more about the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood rather than Christopher Robin putting a dampener on things. Perhaps we’ll see something along those lines in another ten or twenty years, because as we’ve seen, Pooh and his friends will endure, no matter what.