Christopher Robin Review
If Eeyore was hired to make a live action Winnie the Pooh movie, chances are it would look like Disney’s Christopher Robin. It’s the rare live action reboot in Disney’s current roster that dares to do something fresh with the material - but in this case, the core innovation is indulging in a surprising amount of miserablism for the first half, sucking the joy out of the young audience before we join Pooh and his friends on their hijinks. As an older Christopher Robin lives a soulless existence, neglecting his family and young daughter and even repeatedly undermining Pooh when the pair meet again, the film becomes as soul crushingly depressing as the adult life of its titular character.
The cute CGI designs of the beloved characters from one hundred acre wood seem at odds with the storyline itself - one that has the main character recognise the error of his ways far too late in the narrative, preferring to dwell on his workaholic mindset for the bulk of the story. Director Marc Forster has previously uncovered the real life magic behind a famous fairytale, with his Oscar nominated effort Finding Neverland. Here, he strips the wonder out of one of children’s literature's most enduring set of characters, forcing them into a narrative that is too self-serious to properly engage with their innate sense of wonderment.
Adult Christopher Robin is played by Ewan McGregor. He’s a workaholic tasked with finding a way to reduce costs at the luggage business where he works by 20%, meaning that he has to turn down a long awaited countryside holiday with his wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Meanwhile, over in One Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) wakes up to find Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore and all of his other friends have completely disappeared - which leads him through a tree and into the park opposite Christopher Robin’s house, where the two meet up. Christopher isn’t happy with the distractions from his work, but he begrudgingly agrees to help Pooh find his friends again.
Christopher Robin neatly follows the formula of a different Peter Pan tale to Marc Foster’s earlier film - that of Steven Spielberg’s Hook. Often maligned as one of the worst in Spielberg’s filmography (notably, it’s also the only film in his filmography that Spielberg, the director of 1941 and The BFG, has said he doesn’t like), Hook at least lets Peter rediscover his childlike joy in Neverland as soon as he returns, instead of spending close to two acts maintaining a stuffy, business minded persona in the face of youthful joy. It’s not McGregor’s fault that his Christopher Robin comes across as unlikeable, a Scrooge clone redeemed by a slither of empathy. Instead, the screenplay, co-written by Alex Ross Perry and Tom McCarthy (along with Hidden Figures co-writer Allison Schroeder), tries too hard to make Christopher a rounded, adult character - having him face the same overwhelming workload as parents in the audience, that stops them from spending time with those they love the most.
Ross Perry and McCarthy are both known for their character studies of dissatisfied adults, albeit from the opposite perspectives. McCarthy seems a more natural fit for the material, with his older films like The Station Agent documenting characters who begrudgingly open themselves up to friendship after a period of bitter cynicism. But its Ross Perry’s influence that mostly seeps through into the screenplay; from the overarching literary stylisation, to the central conceit of following a man whose home life is falling apart due to a misplaced dedication, the first two acts are like a magical realist variant on Listen up Phillip, shorn of the pretension but fully maintaining the miserablism of the central character study. It’s hard to fathom how a child will react to this material - for adults, the themes of adulthood may resonate, but seeing Christopher Robin fret about cost cutting measures at his luggage business and repeatedly making Winnie the Pooh upset are likely to leave kids alternating between boredom and depression.
As flawed as the film is, the design is absolutely wonderful. All of the denizens of One Hundred Acre Wood look nothing less than stunning, the CGI design making them look like stuffed animals come to life, offering something that feels tactile and tangible to this reality. And, despite the insufferable nature of Christopher Robin’s storyline, it does remain a joy to spend time with Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore and the whole gang once again - although its telling that, in this darker visit to Pooh’s world, the self-loathing one liners of Eeyore are the film’s funniest.