A late-summer dessert entry atop Disney’s already hearty year, Christopher Robin is a property throwback in the vein of David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Frankly, however, it has little of the former’s heart, and all the showy stylistic trappings of the latter. It feels less like a cherry than a big bowl of oatmeal, really. Bland. Gray. A little sticky. It’s salvageable in spots with lotsa hunny – if you really dig for any noticeable flavor – but even then, it’s still just serviceable. Yes, we’re still talking about Christopher Robin.
Christopher Robin takes A.A. Milne’s works about a boy and his bear, and simultaneously modernizes and retrogrades the experience. Du jour in visuals, vintage in its studio feel-goodies. You know Pooh, and his predilection for the ‘hunny’. Fewer may know that Christopher Robin Milne was the name of Milne’s son, and the world of Pooh was inspired by real toys. (You’re welcome at your next bar trivia night.) Now Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, World War Z) has been tasked with styling a new angle on the blonde bear through a modern lens. In the end, it just doesn’t work, and Forster’s sensitive style has nothing to add beyond aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake.
Robin is now the lead. No longer a tot, he’s played by a shockingly unconvincing Ewan McGregor. It would be unfair to say that the Scottish actor isn’t trying, because the material isn’t up to snuff, and he’s perhaps growing weary of having to work off digital partners after years of War in the Stars. McGregor’s Robin is different, a military veteran. Robin fights in WW2, comes home a luggage businessman, and is on the verge of destroying his family. In shorter terms, he’s played with a stick up the ass. Robin must save his staff from layoffs through the power of accounting and charts, but at the cost of alienating his estranged wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher Robin? A corporate stiff?
Robin needs his groove back, and only Pooh and crew can renew it in poor “Cristofer Robem.” Perhaps the best word for this characterization is “insincere”? McGregor, an amiable lead in general, is stuck with nominal dialogue, flat intonation, and smiles and moments of longing that never feel earned. Think of it as an overlong take on the little tragedies of Andy growing up in Toy Story 3. Forster never really mines the actor or the heavily stitched-together screenplay for more than mannered cliche.
Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, and Owl are back and articulated with CGI to look alive. Forget the bright yellow-and-red style of Disney cartoons past; he’s been upgraded to a fully-rendered, photorealistic, handsomely budgeted novelty. Like a marionette with no strings. Winnie the Pooh is still a bear, but he’s button-eyed, texturally faded, and lurches along with limited movements in actual reality, interacting with real trees and real jars of hunny. Owl and Rabbit are straight out of Babe, with flapping lips and wide, cartoonish eyes. Perhaps it’s all computer-animated, but the goal is realism here. The effect is curiously jarring, and even a little droll. Pooh’s design is admittedly a nifty conceit to reinforce the film’s themes of the faded past, and the visual effects are nothing to snooze at. However, Pooh is still voiced by Disney mainstay Jim Cummings, because this movie never wants to go too far into the realm of the new. (And look, for fans, it does admittedly give off a feeling of warm fuzzies.)
Through the powers of a cracked jar of hunny, Pooh and Robin reconnect so that Robin can find his inner child, or some such Tony Robbins bumper sticker slogan. The film is pitched at something approximating magical realism, a layer of sparkle atop organic things, and it sounds like a great pitch. Pooh ambling about in his forest with crackling leaves and endlessly glowing lens flares. But Robin neither commits to nor excels in exploring the value of that blend. “What if Pooh but grittier?” seems to be the logline.
Forster struggles to find a tone. There’s an overt, forceful naturalism at work – handheld camera, effusive insert shots straight out of Super Bowl car commercials – that suggests a filmmaker attempting the texture of a short story. It’s bold, if rocky. But it’s at odds with the play and imagination that Milne’s comfort creatures bring. Never could one imagine an explosion in a Pooh film, yet here we get one to enforce the hardening of Robin in war. Halfway through, Forster lands on something staid and feel-good and oh-so-very Disney: a race to rescue Robin from a Very Big Meeting. Still in that crunchy, Earthy style, though.
It took five separate writers (including indie magnate Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy of Spotlight, and Allison Schroeder of Hidden Figures) to come up with that? Maybe that’s partly to blame: so much punch-up that the film ironically removed so much of its feeling and liveliness. Robin must regain the trust of his past pals, revitalize his dusty Hundred-Acre-Wood, fix his family, save his job, and find time to convincingly sell Ewan McGregor smiling at CG creations. Oh, bother, indeed. While it may be inoffensive enough , we’ve seen what adventurous filmmakers can do with old material like Lowery’s Dragon remake, or Jon Favreau’s full-blooded take on The Jungle Book. Kids and parents have to watch these things, too, so make it worthwhile.
Not all is lost, though. Brad Garrett’s Eeyore is pitch-perfect, complete with great zingers in a dour key (“Looks like a disaster. Shame I wasn’t invited.”) Cummings, the man behind both Pooh and Tigger for nearly 30 years, still has it: a sweet inflection and endless amiability. The pleasure of good company is Robin’s occasionally winning quality. Parents will make it through this, but they’ll be left wondering what the point of all this remixing was. Children … well, one surmises the desaturated look and low-key story will leave them puzzled – kids are more receptive than you think. Like oatmeal, you won’t be mad, but it’s not gonna be the best or most exciting meal you’ll have this year. Again. Talking about Christopher Robin.