Film Review | Christopher Robin

A fictionalised reimagining of the original target audience for the Winnie the Pooh stories, Christopher Robin is a sweet enough confection once it cuts through its own gloom

Bear necessities:  Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) intrudes on his former ward Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) after the talking bear’s animal friends go missing
Bear necessities: Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) intrudes on his former ward Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) after the talking bear’s animal friends go missing

A lot has been read into the Winnie the Pooh stories over the years. A.A. Milne’s much-loved childhood tales of the talking animals of the Hundred Acre Wood have been reinterpreted both in psychoanalytic and religious terms, seeing in Pooh and his assorted friends both the fruits of neurosis and the keys to lifelong inner peace and calm.

Chief of all, however, they remain enduring tales of childhood escapism and plain silliness, rendered with inspired, heart-warming zest by Milne’s delicate writing – a salve against the horrors of war, it must be said – and nudged further into iconic territory by E.H. Shepard’s illustrations.

But while the backstory of the creation of the Pooh stories has already furnished one high-profile period drama – Goodbye, Christopher Robin (2007), directed by Simon Curtis and starring Domnhall Gleeson as Milne himself – that film was an entirely biographical evocation of the familial tensions between father and son, and how the war affected both of them.

This year, however, things take a far more coddling and fantastical bent, at director Marc Forster – working off of a committee-penned script by, Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, from a story by Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson – leads viewers into a re-imagined latter-day history for Christopher Robin, whose navigation of the adult world is thrown into a tailspin by the reappearance of his unique set of childhood friends.

Following a prologue in which a young Christopher Robin partakes in a goodbye banquet with his talking animal friends at the Hundred Acre Wood (a land existing in parallel to his family’s country estate in Sussex), where Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), Tigger (also Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Owl (Toby Jones), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Roo (Sara Sheen) continue to dwell as Christopher goes off to boarding school and eventually to war, before settling in with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) with whom he has a daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael ).

Adapting to life in the post-war depression, Christopher now works as Efficiency Manager at Winslow, a suitcase manufacturer partly run by the founder’s son, the slimy Giles (Mark Gatiss) who is nudging Christopher Robin to make harsh decisions in order to cut company costs. When work gets in the way of a family weekend back to the cottage, Christopher has to face a grumpy wife and daughter. But that’s not all. Pooh has lost his friends, and he comes knocking to Christopher in London.

A fish-out-of-water story (or rather, one about a talking bear plucked out of his native fantasy wood and into the bustling world of postwar London) laced with predictable moral lessons about preserving childhood idealism in the face of the cynical world of adults, Forster’s film nonetheless offers the kind of emotional balm that one would expect from this kind of Disney live-action fare.

Or at least, eventually. Already stumbling to cram a story of war-and-recovery during a rushed credits sequence, the film spends an inordinate amount of time reassuring us that this Christopher Robin is not to be rooted for just yet. It’s as if Forster is straining to ensure this plays at least a little bit like an earnest drama before the talking animals can finally redeem our hardened protagonist. It all plays a little off, even running the risk of losing some of the young ones in the audience – even because there’s not all that much that’s interesting to explore in Robin here... he’s just an average grown-up. Thankfully, the film recovers just in time for the rollicking and heartwarming stuff to really kick into gear.

With this much-needed change of pace, McGregor’s performance is also allowed to soften, giving us a Christopher Robin we can love with at least a fraction of the appreciation afforded to him by his life-long animal friends.

The verdict

Structurally unsound and needlessly dark in its first half, Marc Forster’s film corrects itself just in time to offer what anyone going in for this kind of fare could reasonably expect: a welcome dose of sentimental nostalgia with nuggets of hardly original but still poignant life lessons about never leaving your childhood behind. Bolstered by a sensitive performance from Ewan McGregor, this should be a treat for the whole family... once they manage to get over the somewhat gloomy first act, that is.