Even with Disney rapidly becoming one of the most dominant forces in entertainment history, it’s shocking how daring the company can be. Films like the recent Star Wars, Black Panther, and A Wrinkle in Time have made diversity commonplace, and despite sometimes being on the rails in their stories, they can also take wildly courageous and ambitious choices. Except with their own Disney brands. Disney’s live-action work in the last few years seems to take two approaches:
- Take a known entity and give the audience just enough new information to make them love the story even more (Saving Mr. Banks, Maleficent, etc.) or
- Just tell the same story over again, but this time, in real life (Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Book, basically every other live-action film Disney has coming out in the foreseeable future.)
Christopher Robin is an amiable combination of these two styles, heartwarmingly bringing all your favorite Winnie the Pooh characters into the real world, while also serving as a pseudo-sequel to the stories of the Hundred Acre Wood. The result is sometimes sweet as honey, other times dour as Eeyore, yet still lacking the inventiveness that Disney shows everyone but its original properties.
After leaving the childish world of the Hundred Acre Wood, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) was forced to grow up almost immediately. Christopher was soon sent to a strict boarding school, his father died, and eventually went to fight in World War II, leaving his pregnant wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) behind. When he returns from the war, he’s greeted by a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) who doesn’t know her father, and a drab job at a nearby luggage company. Christopher Robin no longer has the time for play, and the joy that once filled the young boy has been replaced by the harsh realities of life.
Meanwhile back at the Hundred Acre Wood, Christopher’s childhood friend Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) still longs for his days with Robin. When Pooh wakes up one day with his friends nowhere to be seen, he finally goes through the door that Christopher left through decades ago, hoping that his old friend can help find his compatriots. With Christopher on the brink of a breakdown from overwork and lack of levity, a visit from the silly old bear should do Robin a world of good.
Director Marc Forster has often dealt with bringing whimsy back into the lives of adults, with films like Stranger Than Fiction, and especially Finding Neverland – which also further deepened the story of a beloved Disney character. Forster’s vision for the film is particularly charming when it comes to realizing these characters in the real life world. Each iconic Winnie the Pooh character looks soft and realistic, as if any one of these toys could be found in the woods one day, and yet each one is also styled as if they’re from completely different toy brands. This mishmash of toy styles seems like a collection of toys that any kid could have years of imaginative play with. With cinematographer Matthias Koenigsweiser, Christopher Robin is shot like Terence Malick (complete with lightly grazing fields of flowers) mixed with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. The result is gorgeous in its realism, and is just the right touch for bringing these characters to post-war London.
Christopher Robin’s script is where the film’s generic problems lie, which is shocking considering the heavy hitters Disney has wrangled for this project. Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures) and Tom McCarthy, who last wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Spotlight, make sense for this type of heartening film. But the complete surprise of bringing Queen of Earth and Listen Up Philip’s Alex Ross Perry onto a Winnie the Pooh film is strangely inspired, considering his recent film Nostalgia. Unfortunately, not much of any of their voices comes through in a screenplay that goes mostly by-the-numbers. This is the same bland story of a stuffy adult learning to find childhood joy again that has been told by Elf, Hook, Paddington and countless Disney parents, and it’s a shame this murderer’s row of writers couldn’t breathe a little more life into this idea.
Most of the screenplay’s banality lies in Robin’s story, while the film remains delightful when focused on Pooh and the gang. McGregor is stuck being a typical airless Disney father, and Atwell is relegated to nagging matriarch, but they both are doing their best to bring some new life to these tired roles. Unfortunately, Christopher Robin shows its weaknesses most when Christopher Robin is the center of attention.
Christopher Robin might be too slow for children, and too commonplace for adults, yet it’s the Winnie the Pooh heart that still beats strong in this series. Even at its most average, Christopher Robin’s heart is always in the right place, and just absorbing time with these characters can feel like a warm blanket. Christopher Robin is most like Winnie the Pooh: it might be of Very Little Brain, but it’s the Very Big Heart that matters the most here.