Deep Focus: Christopher Robin
A Winnie the Pooh movie should be warm and fuzzy. Christoper Robin—the story of how endearingly calm Winnie the Pooh reconnects to the workaholic grownup (Ewan McGregor) of the title—is just as warm as it needs to be and a bit fuzzier than it ought to be. Although it lacks the sustained, crazy logic of a first-rate flight of imagination, it’s still witty and affecting.
Director Marc Forster’s fantasia on familiar themes begins where A.A. Milne’s two Pooh books end. Pooh the bear (Jim Cummings), Eeyore the donkey (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Tigger (Cummings again), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen)—stuffed animals brought to life in real Sussex woodlands, with computer animation that respects their identities as toys—bid a bittersweet farewell to young Christopher (Orton O’Brien) on the day before he leaves their Hundred Acre Forest for boarding school. Owl and Rabbit bicker over who’s cleverer or wiser; woebegone Eeyore recites his elegiac poem, “POEM” (“Do we care? / We do / Very much.”); Piglet sweetly bequeaths “haycorns” for Christopher to remember him by; and Pooh and the boy wander to what Milne called their “Enchanted Place,” where, the author wrote, “they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky.” There Christopher explains that what he likes doing best is Nothing, though he won’t be able to do Nothing any more. Pooh promises not to forget him, not even when Christopher is 100 and Pooh therefore is 99.
After this funny, poignant prologue (drawn from Milne), the movie deftly illustrates, in swift dramatic vignettes and chapter headings of sepia and cream, how Christopher becomes the one who forgets their friendship. The early loss of his father, front-line service in World War II, and the pressures of depressed postwar England squeeze the stuffing out of the boy. We pick up the main story when he’s in his thirties and looks 50. Now chief of the efficiency department at an upscale luggage manufacturing company, he struggles to provide for his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and their nine-year-old Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Evelyn despairs that she never sees him smile. Madeline asks him to read a bedtime story, hoping for Treasure Island (good taste, that girl), but he reaches for a history book instead. The breaking point comes when Christopher sends Evelyn and Madeline on a planned trip to his family’s rural cottage and stays behind in London to work. He must cut 20 percent of the company’s operating budget by Monday. Can he save his marriage, his family, and the jobs of his co-workers, too? Maybe, just maybe—with the aid of Madeline, the Hundred Acre Forest crowd, and, especially, Winnie the Pooh.
The plot of Christopher Robin follows the Disney Mary Poppins template: to redeem his soul and preserve his home, the man of the house must re-learn how revitalizing it can be to fly a kite, or, in this case, a balloon. What brings Winnie the Pooh to London is not a blast of the East Wind à la Poppins but some accidental magic. Madeline lifts her father’s drawing of Pooh out of a box she finds filled with his childhood keepsakes and leaves it for him on the kitchen table. Dashing off to his job, Christopher spills honey all over it. That’s when Pooh awakens in his house, far away inside a tree. Out of honey and unable to locate his pals, Pooh seeks out his erstwhile human buddy. Pooh goes to the boy’s former tree house, daring to use “The Door Through Which Christopher Robin Is Known to Appear”—and finds himself in London. The ensuing adventures reunite Pooh and Christopher and send them hurtling back and forth between the bustling metropolis and the Hundred Acre Wood.
I love the way the director, Marc Forster, presents the story’s turning point so matter-of-factly and inexplicably. The bear’s sleep cap falls over his eyes like a sleep mask, so when he wakes up, he wonders where he is. As soon as he can see, he goes looking for honey. It’s both droll and moving that his appetites for food and affection lead him in the same direction.
But what is really happening here? Partly because of that sleep cap, I assumed that Christopher’s neglect of his old playmates had put Pooh into deep hibernation and the others into limbo. For a while, even the forest looks to be in a grey funk, as if Christopher had personally depressed an entire magic kingdom. Yet the characters carry on as if it’s merely an exceptionally foggy Windsday. Too much stuff just happens—Forster doesn’t provide an imaginative framework to deepen or enrich the whimsy. Of course, it’s a difficult thing to do, given that wool-gathering is part of the characters’ charm. But the film’s five big-name writers have not mastered the challenge, including Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), who get credit for the screenplay, and Greg Brooker (Stuart Little) and Mark Steven Johnson (Grumpy Old Men), who are named for the (very basic) story. It’s as if they can’t see the Hundred Acre Wood for the trees.
Maybe they were all having too much fun varying Milne’s slapstick strokes (the adult Christopher gets stuck in a portal the way Pooh usually does) or paying homage to the 50-year-old Disney cartoon shorts (Tigger gets to deliver his signature ditty: “The wonderful thing about Tiggers / Is Tiggers are wonderful things / Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs”). They do their best work when they’re most inventive: Madeline has a delightful moment when Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, and Tigger pretend to be her stuffed pets in a train car, yet she still orders five cups of tea.
Forster and his team do excel at fleshing or furring out the film’s call for go-getters to stop and smell the tealeaves. The script’s demand for compulsive adults to cease messing up their family life would be harsh were it not for Pooh’s perfection as a foil. Although he famously sighs that he’s “a Bear of Very Little Brain,” he’s actually honest and wise, as Benjamin Hoff demonstrates in his classic bestseller The Tao of Pooh (a probable influence on this movie). Christopher declares that he enjoys doing Nothing, but the bear is the one who sees its existential value: “Doing Nothing often leads to the very best kind of Something.” Except for his relentless pursuit of honey, which inevitably leaves havoc in its wake, Pooh doesn’t try to force the outcome of events. “Sometimes if I am going Somewhere and I wait, Somewhere comes to me,” Pooh says. He exemplifies instinctive self-knowledge, unselfconscious poise, and authenticity.
He’s also tremendously entertaining, thanks to his sea otter–like capacity for solving problems through play. Christopher realizes that to restrain him from becoming a public spectacle in the city, all he has to do is get Pooh to “play naptime.” Pooh invents his own game on the train to the country, “Say What You See,” and appears to enjoy reciting, “House . . . tree . . . grass.” He boasts a full share of malapropisms, like hearing “efficiency” as “a fish in the sea.” His literal yet original use of language restores the sting to tired figures of speech. After Christopher says that some employees may be “let go,” Pooh asks whether that’s what he did to Pooh for a couple of decades—let go of him.
Cummings, Pooh’s cartoon voice for 30 years, still finds fresh ways to evoke his humane-ursine sensibility. When Christopher asks him to be a less “exuberant” version of himself, Pooh swiftly interjects “ex-Pooh-berant” under his breath. The model-makers and animators match Cummings’s variety and delicacy: they achieve maximum feeling via minimalist facial expressions, such as the slightest upturn of his mouth or tug of his round cheeks. Brad Garrett is equally soulful as Eeyore: no one could be better at bringing doleful overtones to upbeat declarations. Garrett is never more uproarious than when Eeyore proclaims, at the end of his poem, “If anybody wants to clap, now is the time to do it.”
McGregor does all he can to enliven Christopher, a human on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His first laugh, when he boldly jumps into a fearsome stream from his youth and learns that the water now comes to his shins, is a wonderful thing. The strong, dramatic Atwell, and the blissfully unaffected young Carmichael help him meet the task of embodying a conflicted family in storybook circumstances. (Caricaturists like Mark Gatiss, who wins snickering laughs as the arrogant nincompoop heir to the furniture company, have an altogether easier time of it.)
Forster, who first won acclaim for Monster’s Ball 17 years ago, has put together a varied resume, including the weighty adaptation of Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2007) and the arty Bond film Quantum of Solace (2008). The Forster films I like contain fantastic elements. Magical realism redeems Finding Neverland (2003), sportive meta-fiction supports intelligent comedy in Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and graphic-novel zombie horror engulfs us in World War Z (2013). Forster creates an exact heightened atmosphere for each illusion to thrive, which is what he does in Christopher Robin. The film is not as vibrant or as virtuosic as those other British talking-bear movies, the superb Paddington and Paddington 2, but that may be inevitable, given Pooh’s pastoral tradition. Christopher Robin is ambitious yet snug, and borderline sentimental: I wish Christopher didn’t have to spell out that Pooh is a bear “of a Very Big Heart.” But the movie generally honors Milne’s idylls.
At times, this film resembles last year’s Goodbye Christopher Robin, which strove to tell how the real-life boy came to feel exploited by his parents and a new celebrity culture. But that film ended up whiney and reductive about Pooh power. Forster’s movie restores Milne’s magic and humor. So I say, “Two cheers for Christopher Robin!” If anybody else wants to clap, now is the time to do it.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and a contributor to the Criterion Collection.