Christopher Robin Film Review
Oddly sombre in tone, Christopher Robin still works more often than it doesn’t.
A number of critics took issue with Christopher Robin (dir. Mark Forster), calling it an unfaithful adaptation of A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh books. Mark Kermode with the BBC blatantly claimed it was ‘wrong’ while Oliver Jones with the New York Observer lamented the film’s depressing tone. Having no significant personal connection to the Pooh books (As a child I was waist-deep in Goosebumps paperbacks), I can’t review this as a disgruntled fan. So, while I can’t attest to its reverence for source material, I can say it is a very odd film. Odd enough that, in ways, it works, and yet it leaves you wondering what you just watched.
Forster and his team of five story and screenwriters present a morbid existential space for an older Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) to reside in, encapsulated in loneliness, a dead-end job as an efficiency manager, a mostly loveless marriage and a daughter who doesn’t even want her father to read bedtime stories to her. McGregor as the uber-sad Christopher is a shell of a man, all tight shoulders and whispery responses, forced, furtive smiles and droopy eyes.
Casting McGregor is one of the movie’s most peculiar decisions. The actor’s wide smile and infectious charisma made him a great leading man for movies like Trainspotting (1996) and Big Fish (2004), but, even though he mastered emotional repression in the Star Wars prequels, it’s still not apparent why directors want this explosive actor to hold everything inside.
While Christopher disappoints his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) by not attending their family getaway because he has to cut costs at the luggage company where he works (don’t you feel depressed just reading that?), Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) wakes up in the Hundred Acre Wood.
A somewhat sad final dinner at the beginning of the film marks the young Christopher’s departure to boarding school, and it’s clear that the best parts of the movie are going to involve the stuffed animal gang. Particularly, here, Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings).
While Christopher imparts tone-deaf aphorisms of advice about working hard and maximising efficiency, the bumbling Pooh is his counterpoint, his philosophical wakeup call. The part-CGI part-puppet Pooh is a poetic image, right down to the character’s lumbering, slow gait and Cummings’ voice work. Pooh sleepily makes his way out of the dark and overgrown Hundred Acre Wood, realising none of his friends are in their homes. He decides to venture out to London to find Christopher Robin.Where the older Christopher is unable to enjoy himself and constantly fretting about the future, Pooh is all about life’s simple pleasures. If someone asks him what day it is, he says ‘It’s today’. Successfully smuggled back to Christopher’s apartment, Pooh eats from a plate of honey only to step on it and drag sticky spots through the apartment while a fretful Christopher follows with a sponge. In these moments, you can see where the film’s odd dynamic makes sense. The tightly wound Christopher needs to be shown a different way of looking at the world, one he’s forgotten.
Soon the whole gang is chaotically racing through the city and you see the script borrowing from Toy Story instalments and other fish out of water features, although Christopher Robin rarely has the energy of its better comparisons. The slow, moody tone set earlier on clash heavily with the slapstick, even if it is fun to watch Tigger bouncing through the busy streets of London. There are a few wonderful moments with the despondent Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett) in the Hundred Acre Wood, refusing without much care to believe that Christopher Robin is who he says he is. The movie clearly has a tone—it’s a sombre one, but it allows for the more poignant moments between Pooh and Christopher to show that the movie has a reason for being the way it is.
There are moments in which Christopher Robin is moving and kind of beautiful, offset by moments where it just plain doesn’t work. It reminded me of this year’s Isle of Dogs, in which the film’s best moments, on Trash Island with the dogs, are cut short in favour of convoluted storylines on the mainland. Forster’s film does the same thing, reducing the whimsy in favour of driving home a point about how Christopher can’t see the things that matter. The thing is, this point is made every time he’s with Pooh, not when laborious attention is given to his depressing life. It’s simply a film that doesn’t need to be as depressing as it’s trying to be.