I’m not the world’s biggest Winnie the Pooh fan, and yet there are times when I find his stories surprisingly charming, like in 2011’s animated feature. But now Pooh and his pals have made the jump to live-action with Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin. It’s a movie that doesn’t really take any chances or deconstruct a grown man interacting with his childhood playthings because it doesn’t really have to. It’s a movie that happily coasts along on the total charm of Winnie the Pooh and his friends mixed with a familiar narrative of the workaholic dad learning he needs to make time for his family. Rather than get bogged down in notions of realism versus imagination, Forster plays his script as straight as possible, asking us to acknowledge that Pooh and his friends are completely real and they need the help of their old pal Christopher Robin. It’s simple, it’s adorable, and it works.
Having grown up in a boarding school, lost his own father, gotten married, gone to war, and had a child, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) left the Hundred Acre Wood and his friends behind some time ago. He now works for Winslow Luggage, which is facing dire financial straits unless Christopher cuts 20% of the budget. He works nonstop, much to the chagrin of his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and their young daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher’s life gets thrown for a loop when Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) can’t find his friends, and travels to London to get Christopher’s help. Unable to refuse his old friend, Christopher travels back to the Hundred Acre Wood to find Tigger (Cummings again), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), and the rest of the gang while trying to mend the divide with his family.
Somewhere along the way, there’s a more complicated Christopher Robin movie that deals with nostalgia, imagination, trauma, stress, and growing up. That is not this movie, and perhaps that’s for the best. At the end of the day, a dark and depressing spin on Winnie the Pooh is antithetical to the attitude of the character and A.A. Milne’s world. Yes, this is Disney trying to revitalize a property for their own ends, but they’re doing it within the confines of a sweet, good-natured family film. I don’t really want a grim and gritty Winnie the Pooh adaptation. I want a movie where Pooh is befuddled, shows up in London to meet with his old pal Christopher Robin, and then eats honey. Christopher Robin gives me that movie.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword since the plot is both predictable and a bit ramshackle. We’ve seen this kind of story before (the most obvious comparison is Hook), and we know where it’s headed, although younger members of the audience should absorbed in the narrative. And while the plot can feel a bit episodic and Christopher’s development from workaholic dad to awakened free spirit is a bit rushed, it doesn’t really matter all that much because it’s basically a delivery system for live-action Pooh and his friends to be adorable.
On the one hand, that may make Christopher Robin a little easy, but when you look at the enduring popularity of Winnie the Pooh, it’s smart for the movie to play to the property’s strengths. I was constantly charmed by Pooh and his antics. It also helps that the character design is exquisite, finding a way to make the stuffed animals come off as welcoming and friendly rather than creepy and stiff. The film is further buoyed by Matthias Koenigswieser’s cinematography that casts everything in a warm, invigorating light that helps us see the warmth and love reentering Christopher’s dreary world.
Back in 2011, no one really went to see the Winnie the Pooh movie (that might have had something to do with opening opposite Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), but that doesn’t meant the characters are tired or that they need a modern spin. Forster wisely trusts that these characters have endured for a reason, and while the move to live-action may strike some as sacrilege, the heart of Winnie the Pooh remains firmly intact. Like this year’s Paddington 2, it shows there’s really no substitute for a befuddled, sweet bear having misadventures in London.