The year is 2018 and Disney continues mining their past works for ideas to spin into updated and profitable live-action movies based on their animated classics. It’s by no means a new practice for the studio, but recent years have seen an influx of these re-imaginings; beginning with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and leading to last year’s Beauty and The Beast.
The latest of these rehashes is Christopher Robin, a film which sees an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) return to the Hundred Acre Wood and rediscover the friends – as well as the life lessons – he left there. Unlike Disney’s previous remakes, Christopher Robin is less about retelling the original Winnie the Pooh adventures (of either A. A. Milne’s books or the Disney cartoons) and is instead a sequel of sorts, imagining the kind of man Pooh’s best friend grew up to be. That distinction allows this film to avoid the endless comparisons that plague many of Disney’s other live-action remakes, giving the story a chance to stand on its own. The result is a film that is heartwarming and entertaining, but Christopher Robin is by no means wholly original or groundbreaking, more or less adapting elements that have proven successful in previous, nostalgia-laden family films.
Beginning with a flashback to Christopher’s last day in the Hundred Acre Wood where Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, Roo, and Eeyore are throwing him a going away party, the film quickly brings us up to speed with Christopher’s life post-childhood. He’s the efficiency expert at Winslow Luggages, lives in London with his wife, Evelyn (a sadly under-used Hayley Atwell) and their daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), and is kind of dull, boring man who’s lost all sense of fun.
The Robins are planning a weekend trip to the country where they’ll stay at the family’s cottage, but Christopher’s boss demands he work that weekend. Unable to refuse, Christopher breaks the news to his family, who then decide to leave for the country without him. Miserable and alone, Christopher is soon visited by a long forgotten friend who helps him to remember the value in taking a break, relaxing, and doing nothing.
In the simplest terms, Christopher Robin is a movie that feels like a blend of Hook and Paddinginton, but a tad more somber. Like Hook, it sees a once-young, fantasy protagonist who is now a grown man rediscover his childlike wonder and imagination, but like the Paddington films, he does so with the help a kind bear. (And a British bear, no less, or at least a bear character of British creation.) That Christopher Robin pulls the best from both these films is all to its credit, with screenwriters Alex Ross Perry and Allison Schroeder crafting a charming tale about a man who reconnects with his family thanks to some old friends. It may not be the most original or exciting take, but it’s a solid premise with which Christoper Robin delivers a heartfelt story.
By far, the film’s strongest moments come while the adult-Christopher returns to the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh to help find the rest of their friends. These scenes drip with melancholy, as Christopher is forced to recognize that the man he’s become is nothing like the care-free boy he once was. It’s an odd choice for a Disney family film but an effective one. The colors are desaturated, giving the Hundred Acre Wood a real gloomy feel to reflect this sadness and regret, and the film gets surprisingly deep in its dissection of what we lose when grow up.
Pooh’s sage-like observations masked as naive questions, for instance, perfectly break down any defense Christopher has for the so-called “important things” adults focus on (like work or money) while neglecting what truly matters (like friends and family). The film also makes a strong argument in favor of self-care, advocating for personal time with Pooh’s motto that, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best something.” It’s these scenes between Christopher and his friends of the Hundred Acre Wood which are the most powerful in the film, tapping into a sense of nostalgia and helping Christopher to recapture a bit of his enthusiasm for life. Afterwards, when Christoper must get back to his real life and the crises there, the film loses a bit of momentum but it gains charm as Madeline takes the lead in the final act.
McGregor is wonderful as an older, slightly jaded Christopher Robin, able to embody both the annoyance of an adult and the glee of acting like a kid again. He has a fantastic rapport with Pooh, which is a credit to director Marc Foster seeing as Pooh is, of course, a digital creation. But most of all, the real star of Christopher Robin is Jim Cummings, voice actor for both Pooh and Tigger.
Cummings has been the voice of Winnie the Pooh for at least two (possibly three) generations of kids. In 1988, he took the gig over from Hal Smith, who had been the replacement for Pooh’s original voice actor, Sterling Holloway. Cummings also began voicing Tigger not long after, and has been a part of practically every incarnation of Winnie the Pooh since. In Christopher Robin, Cummings’ portrayal of Pooh is easily the most nuanced the bear has ever been, with material that is both dramatic and sad as well delightfully absurd and funny. Pooh is very much the beating heart of this movie, and without Cumming’s iconic performance, Christopher Robin would have absolutely fallen short.
Strong performances from McGregor and Cummings – as well the rest of the cast, with notable standouts being Brad Garrett’s Eeyore and Nick Mohammed’s Piglet – are only helped by the visual effects. Pooh and the rest of the gang look tremendous, with everything from their texture to movements looking real and lifelike. (Well, as lifelike as stuffed bear can look.) These characters are seamlessly integrated into the real world settings and, apart from a few awkward moments in where real actors must physically handle the digital characters, the effect is believable. Christopher Robin is a pretty muted film, color-wise, but Pooh and the rest just pop off the screen, driving home the contrast between the harshness of the real world and their brighter, more optimistic outlook.
At times, the film can be a bit slow and it’s perhaps more introspective than some would wish, but Christopher Robin is a reliably entertaining and heartwarming film with some keen observations about holding on to that childlike wonder and imagination. “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day,” Pooh at one point tells Christopher, but he might as well be talking directly to us, reminding everyone to make a bit more time for doing nothing.