Christopher Robin is a surprisingly mature yet boring entry in the live action Disney canon
Upon first glance, the adventures of the bumbling but lovable Winnie the Pooh and his human friend Christopher Robin don't seem well-suited for a live action adaptation. Other animated Disney properties given this treatment, such as Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, work well outside of the animation medium because there's enough fantastical material to carry the weight of the film. The fun of these films is seeing effects departments bring their worlds to life with grinning aplomb, creating the sorts of imagery we could only imagine in our wildest dreams. Author A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh franchise is by and large an understated affair in the scheme of Disney properties because its beauty is found in the simplicity of its artwork and its cutesy lessons, not in its grandeur. So why try and heighten the material with a live action experience?
It turns out that director Marc Forster (World War Z) finds a swath of material to work with in Christopher Robin, a take on the Poohverse that sees an older, workaholic Robin thrust back into the world of whimsy by his former woodland friends. Forster uses the premise to deliver some surprising, if relatively unoriginal, explorations of the effects capitalism has on individualism.
A perfectly cast Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) brings the elder Christopher Robin to life, creating a boyishly faced but drearily boring company man who is a shadow of the imaginative boy made famous by Milne and Disney's works. Seemingly disillusioned by the war (a nod to Milne himself), he drowns himself in his work, turning him into an absentee husband to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell, Captain America: The First Avenger) and father to young Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). His obsession with work has even infected his daughter, who is so desperate to please him that she spends more time studying ahead than playing. The portrayal is, of course, a stereotypical one for Disney fare, as Robin is a strict and passionless father that must be taught to love life again. But to apply this treatment to one of Disney's most historically carefree characters adds a much needed depth to the trope. The film posits questions designed seemingly designed more for parents than for children: what are the costs of sacrificing your humanity for your work? What kind of society could so easily sap the joy out of a man defined by it?
Swooping in to save Robin's soul is his old friend Pooh (long time Pooh voice actor Jim Cummings), who magically teleports to London to find Robin after his Hundred Acre Wood friends go missing. In this entry, Pooh is a surprisingly tragic character whose intense affection for Robin has made him a bit lost in the years since Robin left him behind. The best scenes of the film are those between Robin and Pooh alone, with Pooh's antics serving as an excellent spark to bring out the tiredness in McGregor's performance. Some of these moments are legitimately heartbreaking, pulling emotional resonance out of the mourning we can feel for the simpler days of our youth. Pooh stands as a stark contrast to the elder Robin: one lives the simple, happy life, while the other can't even remember what that life is like. The contradiction is the selling point of the film, allowing Forster to impart modern life lessons using a franchise steeped in old ones.
While Pooh and McGregor's Robin are a joy to watch, the rest of the characters unfortunately don't receive the same level of care. The principal members of Pooh's posse, Tigger (also Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), and Eeyore (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond), aren't explored much beyond the stock attributes of their characters. Each one is pretty predictable, and their interactions with Robin aren't nearly as nuanced as those with Pooh. The same goes for Robin's family, as Atwell and Carmichael aren't given much to do outside of pout about Robin's dreariness.
It's important to note that while Forster and cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser do gather together some rather gorgeous shots in the film, it's hard to shake the fact that the director's take on the characters' appearances are a bit misguided. While the CGI used to create them is very convincing, they are frankly a bit creepy to watch. Pooh's dead-eyed stare, devoid of all the personality of his animated iteration, is strange to watch in the year of Paddington 2, whose CGI bear makes Pooh look like a disguise of the monster from It in comparison. It works to some degree in the context of the realistic tone the film is going for, but some personality in their design certainly would have elevated the fun of the events unfolding on screen.
Ultimately, Christopher Robin is a strange entry into the Disney live action canon. It certainly has a lot on its mind, and it often communicates those thoughts effectively. It also serves up a nice philosophy appetizer for children, if you're into that sort of thing. But nothing found in the film makes it feel essential, and it doesn't ever quite the capture the joy that the animated entries in the franchise exude. The lack of a truly light heart in most of the film brings to mind one of the most famous lessons offered by Pooh himself: “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like, “What about lunch?”'
That's a lesson that Christopher Robin probably should have taken to heart.