Winnie the Pooh comes to life in a spirited adventure that should have spent more time focusing on its stuffed animals.
“People say nothing is impossible,” muses Winnie the Pooh, “but I do nothing every day.” If only the lovable bear’s latest adventure were more willing to take that wisdom to heart — and if only “Christopher Robin” didn’t have so much in common with its namesake, who desperately needs to do a little bit less.
A clever, hectic chimera that brings your favorite stuffed animals to life in the real world, “Christopher Robin” awkwardly marries the handcrafted feel of A.A. Milne’s stories with the magical-realism of the animated Disney movies they inspired. The results are sweet and dreary in equal measure, like tea and honey on a bleak London day. Director Marc Forster stitches together a lovingly overstuffed comedy that reflects the best and worst of its hero. Like Christopher Robin himself, the film runs deep with all manner of repressive joy. And like Christopher Robin itself, the film is far too busy to make the most of it.
But while “Christoper Robin” may fail to make something out of nothing, it’s far too smart and spirited to make nothing out of something. On the contrary, this post-modern Pooh has a little to offer anyone who’s ever loved these characters (if also too much for everyone to love how they’re used here). At once both a little more fun and a lot more unsettling than last year’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” Forster’s take is likewise focused on the author’s son and frequent subject, but hinges on a conceit that liberates it from the strictures of a standard biopic.
Reimagined as a classic Disney Dad, the Christopher Robin in this film isn’t the real person who grew up to fight in World War II, marry a cousin named Lesley de Sélincourt, and open a bookshop in Dartmouth. On the contrary, this Christopher Robin is a dull, grownup version of the (fictionalized) character from his father’s writings, and he looks an awful lot like Ewan McGregor. He goes to battle — as we see for ourselves in a prologue that immediately distances this movie from the cheer and safety of most children’s fare — but comes home to a wife named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and a miserable job as an efficiency manager at the Winslow Luggage company.
In real life, Christopher Robin’s daughter was born with severe cerebral palsy. In this alternate history, the little girl (Bronte Carmichael) is only afflicted with a workaholic father. In real life, Christopher Robin’s friends were stuffed animals. They were stitched together from old cloth, brought to life by his boyhood imagination, and made famous by the tales Milne wrote about them. Here, they’re real as can be. Pooh and Roo and all the rest are reborn as enchanted creatures who — to the utter delight of children, and the abject horror of grown-ups — can walk and talk and get into all sorts of trouble, as they do when they try to repay the kindness Christopher Robin showed them as a child, and save him from the workaday drudgery of life as an adult. Easier said than done.
It’s the kind of high-concept premise that kids might have an easier time of accepting than their parents, though “Christopher Robin” isn’t tailor-made for either demographic. Graced with a certain guileless, but also mired in a thick fog of middle-class tedium, this strange chimera of a movie blurs the line between coming of age and being of age. That idea is at the heart of a story about the wretchedly strict dichotomy between work and play — about the perils of forfeiting the present in order to strive towards the fantasy of a better future. Sorry, children, but capitalism is kind of a drag! Here’s hoping you enjoyed childhood while you still could.
It goes without saying that the movie is better at diagnosing its problems than it is at solving them (Winnie the Pooh is too busy gorging himself on honey to solve the wage gap), but there’s something deeply refreshing about such an unconventional approach. Disney must have wanted to mix things up when the studio hired indie auteur Alex Ross Perry to write the screenplay (“Spotlight” filmmaker Tom McCarthy and “Hidden Figures” scribe Allison Schroeder are also credited for their contributions), and that decision pays off in unexpected ways. “Nothing comes from nothing,” goes Pooh’s common refrain. And while it’s mighty strange for a stuffed bear to be quoting King Lear, the strongest aspect of Perry’s script — and of the film as a whole — is how it finds such practical applications for the tao of Pooh.
Even when “Christopher Robin” stumbles or steers itself into a corner, it never stops trying to understand what people lose when they let go of the things they love. The movie sells itself by keeping one foot on the ground at all times. Or, at most times, anyway — scenes in the make-believe forest of Hundred Acre Wood are a drag, as Forster opts for a dreary gray palette that owes more to Tim Burton than it does to A.A. Milne. He fares much better when forcing the animals into the real world, where they function more like hyper-intelligent pets than imaginary friends. Beautifully rendered to seem bespoke, Pooh and his pals look like they’ve been sitting in a box in your mom’s garage for 40 years. The photo-real CG is so tactile and lifelike that it’s thrilling just to watch the stuffed animals hang out and eat honey.
McGregor has little to offer as the straight man, but the movie’s voice cast makes up for it in a big way. Jim Cummings is, as always, a definitive Pooh, even if his talents can’t save the hyperactive Tigger from being insufferable. One can sense Perry’s voice in the best lines belonging to the depressive Eeyore, but Brad Garrett finds a measure of joy in every one of them. All of your other favorites each get their moment to shine, even if the set pieces are too frenzied and unfocused for any one of them to stay in the spotlight for long; even if our attention always has to return to sad sack Christopher Robin, who realizes far too late that growing up is as much about holding on as it is about letting go. If only it didn’t take him so long to discover that nothing comes from nothing, which means that something always does.
“Christopher Robin” opens in theaters on Friday, August 3.