Film Review: Christopher Robin

'Christopher Robin' sends Pooh, Piglet and friends on a charming, melancholy meander through '40s London.
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It’s difficult to discern from the quirky Christopher Robin just what Disney intended for this latest live-action reboot of one of the studio’s durable animated properties. The film evinces a childlike sense of imagination and wonder and a gleeful spark, both painted over by a streak of sadness. Its urges towards being a fun family romp don’t quite mesh with its simultaneous tendency towards pathos.

Yet its maturity and melancholic mood are what distinguish director Marc Forster’s CGI-enhanced blend of storybook fantasy and period drama from run-of-the-mill family fare. Christopher Robin also boasts a touching performance in the title role by Ewan McGregor and strikingly lovely cinematography and design that seamlessly incorporate the warm, fuzzy characters of Pooh and company into scenes with McGregor and the human cast.

The visual effects are impressive and the few bursts of action delightful, but this is still more a reflective journey than a rollicking chapter of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. That 1977 animated picture was Disney’s first feature-length foray into the beloved imaginary world that author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard created around the stuffed bear and other toys of Milne’s son, Christopher Robin. The honey-loving Pooh bear and pals Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger since have led an adorable, anthropomorphic coterie of creatures across Disney’s prodigious output of films, shorts, TV series, straight-to-video features, games and theme park attractions.

They return in Christopher Robin, first seen sending off young Christopher (Orton O’Brien) with a tea party as the boy prepares to leave for boarding school. He promises a wistful Pooh that he’ll never forget them, or all their adventures, and then off he goes. Years pass, and Christopher never returns. Eventually, he marries his first love, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), then serves in combat during WWII, from which he comes home injured but now a father to little Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).

In a direct, heartfelt fashion, the film shapes Christopher Robin as someone who emerged from childhood fantasies to suffer real slings and arrows in life. Although he has a loving family and stable home—two, if you count the country cottage he inherited—he’s lost his sense of play and good cheer. His spirits are sunk by his stressful job as efficiency manager at the struggling Winslow Luggage Company, and he feels even lower when an emergency assignment for work forces him to miss a trip to the country with Evelyn and Madeline.

The time would seem just right, then, for Winnie the Pooh to stumble through the Hundred Acre Wood and back into Christopher Robin’s life in postwar London. Pooh needs help finding his friends, who all seem to be missing, and, of course, Christopher needs help rediscovering his sense of fun and freedom.

What we have here is an old-fashioned yarn about Dad working too hard and losing the joie de vivre that once defined him. And he’d better recover it before he loses touch with the family who loves him. While the script doesn’t upend expectations for such a tried-and-true plot, the film rises above them with handsome presentation and excellent work by McGregor, acting most of the time opposite animated stuffed animals, or, really, his own imagination. While Atwell isn’t offered much more to play than supportive wife and mother, Carmichael’s Madeline holds her own as a gutsy pint-sized heroine and inheritor of Christopher Robin’s playful, buoyant spirit.

The voice cast behind Pooh (Jim Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Tigger (Cummings) and buddies Rabbit (Peter Capaldi) and Owl (Toby Jones) vibrantly captures the personalities familiar from stories and films, and some of the familiar voices, too. Cummings, who’s voiced Pooh in various series and features since 1988, delivers an achingly sympathetic performance that easily recalls the late Sterling Holloway’s memorable work voicing the character in the '60s and '70s.

Cummings’ take on Tigger is not quite so infectious, but actor-comedian Brad Garrett brings a perfectly mopey deadpan to his Eeyore, the Debbie Downer of donkeys.  Despite his dour outlook, Eeyore’s pretty reliable for a laugh whenever he appears in Christopher Robin, a movie that could stand to laugh a lot harder, but still finds its power to uplift.