There comes a moment in Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin wherein the grown-up title character (Ewan McGregor) meets teddy bear Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) in a city park across from Christopher’s house. When Pooh reveals how he got there Christopher replies with “that’s a silly explanation.” Some would say that’s the joy of what Disney’s Christopher Robin is trying to do: remind audiences that sometimes movies are about the fantasy. Others, like myself, would say that’s sloppy screenwriting meant to cover up obvious flaws in a script that can’t figure out what it wants to be. If anything, Christopher Robin is a fantastic reminder of what Disney fails to understand about their animated features: no one cares about the flawed humans. Give us two hours of whimsy with animal characters we know don’t exist in reality.
Christopher Robin draws heavily from films you’ve seen (or ignored) before, telling the story of a dour literary character whose life was similar to the one created on the page. Just last year audiences’ saw the story of a curmudgeonly Charles Dickens visited by ghosts which, apparently, helped him write A Christmas Carol. Another kissing cousin to this feature is Steven Spielberg’s Hook, itself about a fictional character who was presumably real who discovers a popular story is real. All of this is to say the film tells of Christopher Robin (the name Milne is never stated so Disney can say the movie isn’t a biopic about the real man), a workaholic trying to save the employees in his company while dispensing tough love and mild neglect to his wife, played by an always-underutilized Haley Atwell, and precocious daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). When the two go away for the weekend, Robin discovers that his childhood friend Winnie the Pooh has returned, seeking Christopher’s help to find the rest of the denizens of Hundred Acre Wood. While interacting with Pooh and his friends, Christopher rediscovers his inner child and how to connect with his family.
So, let’s get the elephant out of the room: the movie is very straightforward. Despite meta critiques from Atwell’s Evelyn that Christopher is having a mental breakdown and Madeline screaming at Pooh, the movie plays off the fact that what everyone is seeing is real. Pooh and his friends, long though to be figments of the imagination of a lonely little boy, are real things that exist in an alternate universe. If this sounds familiar it’s because Disney has already done this as well with their Alice in Wonderland franchise. Things are taken to such a serious effect that Pooh even gets a Gladiator-esque scene where his paw runs through a field of flowers.
This seriousness though never extends to the character of Christopher Robin himself. The audience meets him as a young child who interacts with these creatures for no discernible reason. It’s never stated that he’s lonely or has a bad home life. In fact, the worst thing he can mention is being sent to boarding school where…we still aren’t given any glimpses into who he is as a person. Christopher Robin, in the animated films, was always an audience conduit who popped up to remind the audience of the reason for Pooh’s existence: they were his toys and his imagination brought them to life. None of that is evident here. Ironically, for a movie that wants to be about foregoing the mundane realities of the real world, imagination never factors into character’s thinking, short of being told to engage with it.
The whole goal of the film is to introduce Pooh and the other characters we love, and that’s when Christopher Robin rises above being a boring retread of Finding Neverland (another Forster film). If the only thing is that this movie inspires Disney to make a Pooh and Friends feature it will have been worth it because Jim Cummings and the other voice actors assembled are fantastic. Cummings, the voice of Pooh for the last 20 years, creates a character who is inquisitive, sensitive, and a good listener. So how disappointing it is seeing him be the child Christopher Robin has to learn to care for. Much of the film’s middle sees the adult have to deal with Pooh’s childlike questioning, his need for a balloon, and his inability to follow directions. It’s Mr. Mom with a living teddy bear. But when Pooh is in the Hundred Acre Wood, he genuinely comes alive in a way that’s different from placing him in bustling “Lun-dun.” Cummings also gives us his patented “T-I-double ‘guh’-ER” voice as the bouncy Tigger. Cummings works well with Brad Garrett’s new interpretation of Eeoyre who reminds us that, more than Christopher Robin himself, the sad donkey is the best representation of adulthood. His scenes are the funniest because they are so relatable. However, these characters are really playing second fiddle to the humans, with nearly an hour passing before the Tigger song even plays. No one is seeing this movie for Christopher Robin, yet the script thinks otherwise.
This might explain why the human performances are so muted – and if that’s the case, why give them the majority of the screentime? McGregor’s Christopher Robin isn’t the workaholic dad in terms of meanness; he’s just apathetic and completely dense about his family. And it’s not dense in the sense of failing to read signals, though he seems completely unable to tell that his wife is mad at him. We’re talking dense in that it’s surprisingly he knows these people’s names. The movie rushes quickly over Christopher’s meeting of Evelyn (not the name of Christopher Robin Milne’s real wife, by the way) and his daughter, Madeline (also not the name of Milne’s real, disabled daughter), so once the audience has to root for him learning the error of his ways it’s like we’ve watched roommaters for several years. And there’s barely any chance for catharsis with the third act becoming a loud, whiz-bang action setpiece involving trains, trucks, and trunks.
But it doesn’t really matter because Christopher Robin’s ultimate message is a laughably corporate sentiment that seems like a Disney marketing campaign, not a moral to a movie. Essentially, Robin saves the company and gets his family back by urging for living wages and vacation time. Considering Disney has been publicly maligned for underpaying its staff – and just raised the minimum wage the week of the film’s release – it’s ironic that the movie wants to state people will be more loving if they took time off….and went to Disneyland maybe? “Kids, is your dad working too much? Go on vacation to Disneyland and, hey, while you’re here pick up this Winnie the Pooh plushie to comfort you on days when your dad neglects you.”
Am I being cynical in my review of a presumably harmless kids movie? Yes, but that’s only because Christopher Robin is a lazily made piece of corporate fluff. I’m all for bringing Winnie the Pooh back. The photorealistic animation that was used to phenomenal effect in The Jungle Book is equally astounding here and it’d be fantastic seeing Pooh and Tigger interact in a Hundred Acre Wood that looks authentic. Instead, we’re gifted 104-minutes of bland acting with little sense of worldbuilding. Christopher Robin’s story isn’t unique or interesting. The characters around him are, yet they aren’t the focus. If your kids want to see Pooh and the gang, prep for them to be occupied for easily 40 minutes before they’re indulged.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.