Back to the Hundred Acre Wood: A grown-up Christopher Robin reunites with Pooh and friends in Marc Forster's fantasy
You’d think the man who directed 2004’s Finding Neverland would be the go-to guy to helm 2017’s Goodbye, Christopher Robin—but no: Marc Forster opted to cover that territory as a family-styled, Disney fiction called, simply, Christopher Robin.
Finding Neverland, which Forster decided to do instead of Brokeback Mountain, was a dark-hued, fact-based drama about Scottish playwright James M. Barrie (an Oscar-nominated Johnny Depp) creating the character of Peter Pan to divert four young boys in his neighborhood from the inevitable, onrushing death of their mom.
Director Simon Curtis told much the same sort of story—how a childhood icon (in this case, Winnie-the-Pooh) was born out of desperate sadness—in his Goodbye, Christopher Robin. Pooh’s “pop,” playwright A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), came back to an unhappy marriage from World War I with an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. His sole solace was in reconnecting with his neglected (and only) child, Christopher Robin, through long talks and walks in the woods. They were accompanied by the boy’s teddy bear, which became Winnie-the-Pooh and came with other stuffed animals that inhabited their fabricated fantasyland, the Hundred Acre Wood (Piglet, Tigger, Eeyone, Owl, Kanga, Roo, et al.). This fanciful father-and-son collaboration made Milne very rich and his son very resentful when the boy felt exploited to sell books. The adult Christopher didn’t dip into the family honey pot till he had to—to cover the medical expenses of his cerebral palsy-stricken daughter.
Christopher Robin hardly had the carefree, frolicsome life that Christopher Robin has. Following the trajectory of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, 2014’s Maleficent, 2015’s Cinderella and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, the cartooned Winnie-the-Pooh makes his CGI screen comeback with live-action actors a full half-century after film-debuting in Disney’s animated featurette, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.
Ewan McGregor, who played a psychiatrist for Forster in 2005’s Stay, was the director’s first choice for the titular role—here a grownup, but ground-down, businessman who has lost all sense of imagination. As scripted by Alex Ross Perry and Allison Schroeder from a story conjured up by Perry, it takes Pooh and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood crew to help him locate it again, reactivate the child still inside him and participate in the family events that a demanding workaday life has denied him. (Like Christopher Robin, Robin Williams as the adult-gone-corporate Peter Pan went the same heartwarming route in 1991 in Steven Spielberg’s Hook.)
“Obviously, Barrie and Milne were both extremely creative writers who were able to invent a fantasy world that would hold the attention and the heart of generation after generation,” says Forster. “With Peter Pan—especially in Finding Neverland—you could always escape into your imagination. With Pooh, [Milne] had all these little ‘Poohisms’ that would make me smile because they had this philosophy within them—and yet, at the same time, they had a child’s imagination and simplicity.”
The movie character that comes closest to approximating “Poohisms,” Forster contends, is the one Peter Sellers played in Being There, a simple-minded gardener named Chance who is known erroneously to the D.C. elite as Chauncey Gardiner.
“This guy Chance had a rather unique philosophy that was received hilariously. People always read deeper meanings into his simple words. It’s very similar to Pooh when he says things like ‘People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day’ or ‘I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been.’”
That the truth about Christopher Robin preceded this August’s funfest fantasy may be something of a Grade-A Spoiler Alert, but Forster elected to stick with the fiction and ignore the facts.
“Our movie is deliberately different—it’s fictional,” he stresses. “It’s about a grown-up Chris Robin who has lost his way, and it’s pure fantasy how he gets back on the tracks again through his relationships with Pooh and Friends. I’ve always loved the old Disney movies, and I think it’s important, if you are making a Disney movie, to embrace that and sort of make that part of the theme and the vision of the movie.
“I always felt there was a naiveté about the original Pooh books. Growing up, there are challenges, and you sort of recognize these adult problems with a kind of childhood innocence. I think, in general, when you leave childhood behind—when you leave your toys and your bear behind—there’s always a melancholy to that.
“We all think back on our childhoods. Some had a magical childhood, and others had more pain and suffering, so it really depends, but no matter whether you’ve had a magical childhood or not, if you’re looking at time past, there’s always melancholy.”
At least this melancholy is not as advanced these days as it was 14 years ago when Forster was promoting Finding Neverland: “Pretty much all my work is concerned, in one way or another, with death,” was the line he was putting out back then.
“I’m in a new phase,” the German-born, Swiss-reared, NYU Film-Schooled director cheerfully confesses now. “I’ve come into the sunlight. This film has to do with life, not death. The thing is, the older you get—and also if you have children of your own—you suddenly feel like, ‘Yeah, let’s celebrate life.’ In the troubling times that we now live in, I think it’s very important to have hope and joy, to have a celebration of life.”
His own daughter prompted his current cinematic “celebration of life” two years ago when she was only seven. They were on a plane together, heading for a vacation spot, when she suddenly looked up from the cartoon she was watching and said to him, “Daddy, can’t you just make one movie for me? I can’t watch your movies.”
She was right. Christopher Robin is his first foray into children’s fare. The 48-year-old filmmaker is a genre-jumper, but he’s always playing to a mature-audience market—from Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning workout (Monster’s Ball) to Brad Pitt’s box-office bonanza (World War Z) to Khaled Hosseini’s story of a tested Afghan friendship (The Kite Runner) to a Daniel Craig 007 (Quantum of Solace).
“I’m a big fan of Howard Hawks, and he jumped around all the time,” Forster notes, by way of explaining his eclectic output. “There are very few people in this business who are allowed to jump around, and I enjoy it because I always get confronted with new challenges. If I only did the same genre or the same film over and over, I would perfect that craft, but making different movies always presents a challenge. There’s the possibility I might fail. I feel like ‘I just have to make this movie work somehow.’”
He didn’t miss a beat in responding to his daughter’s challenge. “She was watching a Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon, so I just said to her, ‘OK, let’s do a Winnie-the-Pooh.’”
Happily, it just so happened that Christopher Robin was about to be green-lighted at Disney. “Brigham Taylor, a producer there, said to me, ‘We’ve been working on this screenplay for a while, and we just got a draft. Would you like to look at it?’ He pitched me the concept, and I loved the concept—even without reading the script.
“I made this for everyone—from kids to grownups. I wanted to make people laugh and feel that ultimately what really matters is the love you have for one another. You should take the time and attention to be with the people you love. Nothing is more important than that, because our time on this planet is finite. The only currency we have that matters is time. It’s how you spend that time and who you spend it with.”