Christopher Robin and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Marc Forster
Disney’s recent attempts to cannibalize its previous properties into live action features have been decidedly mixed, and more so with me than with other critics it seems. Maleficent was one of the best movies that came out that year, but with The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast following it up… well let’s just say that this latest outing isn’t coming out with the highest of expectations from me. Still, there’s a lot of talent involved and like Maleficent it’s not a simple remake of another film; rather it’s a reimagining of the material to fit with modern sensibilities and current societal issues. That may sound pretentious, but kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and if Disney wants to make something that’s at least SOMEWHAT challenging for its core demographics, I’m sure not gonna stop them from trying! Does this story about a grown Christopher Robin manage to get us to the heart of what made Winnie the Pooh such a timeless classic, or is this movie just as cynical and jaded as the man they’re telling the story of? Let’s find out!!
Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is a young boy who spends many afternoons playing the Hundred Acre woods with his friends Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, and Owl (Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen, and Toby Jones) and of course, Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings as well). However, these idyllic summer days must ultimately come to an end as life has a way of pushing you away from childish things and he heads off to live his life; going to boarding school, dealing with loss, fighting in World War 2, and eventually marrying the love of his life Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and having a child they name Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). All this time however, The Hundred Acre Woods has managed to go on with him; albeit a bit more gloomy from time to time with Pooh still waiting to see if his best friend will ever come back. Well he might have to wait a bit longer as Christopher has to deal with problems at work and with his sniveling boss (Mark Gatiss) who’s forcing him to make ridiculous cuts which could include the jobs of a lot of people if he doesn’t find places to make them elsewhere. Things come to a head as he’s forced to work over the weekend that he had already scheduled to spend with his family in his childhood home and after even more stress and heartache he finds himself in a small park outside his house… where a familiar bear managed to somehow wander into. Will Winnie the Pooh manage to help Christopher Robin find a modicum of peace in his life? Can Christopher learn what’s REALLY important in life before he loses everything? Just how much honey does Pooh need to eat!? He doesn’t even have a digestive system!!
I’m probably not the target audience for this as I fall in that kind of middle ground where I’m not having Christopher Robin’s existential crisis about his crushing responsibilities while also not being young enough to get a lot of enjoyment out of the Hundred Acre Woods shtick, but I can (hopefully) recognize a good movie when its staring me in the face, and this is certainly a VERY good movie. Flawed might not be the best way to describe it, but I certainly have issues with this movie that are worth pointing out; and yet not in an OVERTLY negative fashion like I would for movies that were genuinely lacking in certain areas. It’s more of a philosophical difference or even preferences with how the language of film is used and about certain cinematic tropes than anything else, and while I’ll surely point them out here, just know that I do think this movie succeeds greatly at what it’s doing and that it will appeal beautifully to its target audience. Maybe I’m not QUITE there yet (or maybe I’m just an emotionally stunted jerk) but I get that this is going to work for so many people, and I’ll certainly have my turn at the mid-life crisis plate when they get around to doing a live action Calvin and Hobbes movie.
We’ll get the basics out of the way first before we get into what this movie is ABOUT which I feel is the far more interesting discussion, but just so it’s on the record, this is a surprisingly well crafted and nuanced movie from the Disney company (who I’m not especially pleased with right now *cough* #RehireJamesGunn *cough*) that tells a very human and complex story in a way that will surely be understood by even young viewers. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the redesigns of the characters as the gritty and washed out aesthetic reminded me of the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie with Tigger and Rabbit in particular looking rather off (was Rabbit ALWAYS a rabbit and not a stuffed animal!?), but Eeyore looks great and honestly got the most laughs out of anyone in the movie. Apparently sardonic humor transcends generations; though a lot of it has to do with Brad Garrett’s pitch perfect delivery which makes it a little surprising that he’s only just now getting tapped to do the role (he did it one other time in a video game from 1995) and he seems so natural for the part. It’s actually kind of disappointing that he’s not in there MORE as his defeatist attitude would actually play well with Christopher Robin’s jadedness, though when you start asking for MORE from a movie that’s usually a good sign that they’re doing something right. Not always, but in this case the distribution of characters is rather balanced with only a few characters feeling particularly underutilized.
Then again, this isn’t THE MANY ADVENTURES OF THE HUNDRED ACRE WOOD; it’s CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. How does that aspect get handled? Rather well I’d say, though nothing feels PARTICULARLY original here from a story perspective. Admittedly it’s kind of surprising to see World War 2 and post war England as critical backdrops to a story with Winnie the Pooh in it (almost as baffling as when they had him tell kids to stay off of drugs), but for the most part it feels like a lot of other Disney movies that aren’t fantasies, fairy tales, or super hero blockbusters, and to a certain extent I’d say that’s my big contention with this. Where this movie doesn’t necessarily STUMBLE but diverges from my point of view is when it’s made clear that this is another YOU WORK TOO HARD movie and I’ve always had a problem with films (most of which are from Disney) that use that trope. Yes, there is ABSOLUTELY a problem in this world (particularly in the US among industrialized nations) where people are forced to work much harder and longer hours than they should just to scrape by with enough to care for themselves and their families. That is absolutely a reality and for a lot of people it means that the primary breadwinner in the family is often at arm’s length from the rest of the family; simply for not being there as much or taking home too much stress from the office to really be an effective member of the family. The problem though is that movies like this never come up with a believable solution or even let realistic consequences play out; rather it takes a pretty common real world issue and tries to turn it into yet another fairy tale; a story that you pay Disney a boatload in ticket sales that will then tell about how you’re not there enough and that something will almost certainly fall into place if you just spend more time with your family. Now I’m not about to say there’s no personal failings or ways to improve your home life even in these circumstances (we’ll get to how the movie handles that soon enough), but the reason that people need to work these hours is not something they have any real control over. You can pin it entirely on Capitalism if you choose to, but in pretty much any system you’re almost guaranteed to have workers exploited to some degree as there’s always one person higher on the totem pole who has to make decisions (either capriciously or with much care) that will almost certainly negatively affect those below. When you strip stories like these of real world context such as rent, food, education, health care, repairs, and rainy day funds, you start to lose sight of what the REAL problem is and what can actually be done to fix it, or better yet a chance to impart some understanding instead of judgements. The second act actually does a decent job of avoiding this problem, but once we get to the third act it’s clichés and histrionics that falls far short of what I felt the earlier parts of this movie was building towards.
Now it may seem a bit backwards to jump to the third act before wrapping back around to the second, but it’s important to put the GOOD aspects of its message as a contrast to where I feel it stumbles a bit. The stuff with his job is always an element of this movie, but it rarely takes front and center until the third act to instead focus on Christopher Robin’s inability to meaningfully relate to his family or to his own feelings. It’s not his job’s fault that he doesn’t know which stories he should be reading to his daughter (preferring textbooks over all else) or that he’s completely clueless to the passive aggressiveness of his wife, and these are things a lot of us can relate to even if we don’t have a stressful job as the reason for feeling that way. When Pooh comes into the picture, it’s not to help him find a way to shave down the budget of his department or even to tell him more efficient ways to manage his time. No, he’s there to get at something much deeper and personal which cannot be placed to a single source, nor does the movie try to come up with a straightforward pathology for his current state. His father died when he was young, he was in the war and saw some serious stuff, and the world after the war is not a paradise despite all that was sacrificed to preserve it. All of that is part of his ennui, yet none of it is the CAUSE or something that needs to be FIXED. Okay, the economic and political realities could use a bit of fixing, but that’s outside the scope of this movie at least for the first two thirds. The movie does a fantastic job of conveying all this wit has little direct dialogue as possible which goes to show just how strong the script is. Christopher Robin never has a heartfelt moment where he talks about his dad, or what he saw in the war, or anything like that; he just… learns to let go. He learns that the pain he puts himself through is not what is keeping his life together and is in fact slowly tearing it apart which is conveyed beautifully by Pooh’s very clever dialogue and the interesting visual elements of the Hundred Acre Woods. It’s kind of a shame that things get a bit too… direct in the third act considering how well this vague progression and inscrutable tone manage to capture the emotional toll that he and many people go through on a day to day basis, but I guess a chase scene through the streets of London is what will help keep the kids invested, and it’s actually pretty well done to boot.
This is a movie that I can’t really say anything NEGATIVE about to the extent that I would dissuade anyone from seeing it as my issues with it are mostly personal and reflect a rather specific outlook; not that the Disney Dad trope isn’t something that’s rather well known, but for the most part it’s not something that will bug people when they see it in movies and I wouldn’t recommend skipping over this one even if it does. It’s a movie with a lot more maturity than most rated R movies and it’s good for kids to have something like this to watch that’ll trust them to understand complex ideas and presents them in a way that’s very palatable and easy to feel. I’d PROBABLY recommend something like Teen Titans Go To The Movies over this film based on my taste alone (this movie was PRETTY funny when Eeyore was on screen and not much when he isn’t), but this is still a great film that will certainly appeal to MOST people even if it’s only SOMEWHAT appealing to bitter old curmudgeons like myself. Then again, Disney has certainly earned my curmudgeon-ness recently. Seriously, if you believe a darn thing in this movie and pretty much every other movie you release, just #RehireJamesGunn already!