2018, PG, 104 min. Directed by Marc Forster. Voices by Jim Cummings, Toby Jones, Sophie Okonedo, Brad Garrett, Peter Capaldi. Starring Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 10, 2018
Like Winnie the Pooh finding his own footprints in the snow, Christopher Robin ambles on the heels of 2017's more historically accurate Goodbye Christopher Robin. But where that first film followed the real boy who was the inspiration for A.A. Milne's childhood classics, this is the Christopher Robin of the book (McGregor), all grown up in post-World War II Britain, with a wife (Agent Carter's Atwell, seemingly born to wear tweed) and daughter (Carmichael, hewing out her own midcentury niche after small parts in Darkest Hour and On Chesil Beach). Yet while he superficially seems fine, there's something missing in his life, a certain something that possibly a certain bear might be able to help him find. Not that Pooh (voiced, as for the last 30 years, by Jim Cummings), is always that much help. But here he is, a bear of very little brain, in the middle of London, willing to lend a paw. After all, as he once very wisely said, you can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.
It's a seeming change of pace for Spotlight director Tom McCarthy to take script duties here, but makes complete sense in the context of Disney handing beloved musical oddity Pete's Dragon over to the equally unexpected David Lowery for a refresh. The script also in part comes from another unexpected source: lo-fi indie darling Alex Ross Perry, previously most famous for divisive festival fare like The Color Wheel, or depictions of thoroughly unlikable protagonists like Listen Up Philip. But then this Christopher Robin is simply an ordinary boy who had some extraordinary friends, and then grew up to be a very ordinary man who is having a very difficult time balancing his work and family life, and it will take reuniting with his old friends to get that all back on track.
And that's where the true magic of Christopher Robin lies. It's not that Pooh suddenly, magically reappears out of nowhere: he's been off, doing bearish things. When Christopher Robin left, Pooh, and Piglet, and Kanga, and Roo, and Owl, and Rabbit were still in the Hundred Acre Wood, still being themselves, and the inevitable happy ending comes because Christopher Robin returns to the logic of his childhood.
While the voice talent makes clear nods to the Disney adaptations of the Sixties (with particular plaudits to Brad Garrett for capturing Ralph Wright's morose tones as Eeyore), there's a deeper connection to Milne's books than ever. There's an undefinable, slightly mournful quality to his work – after all, the opening scene is taken directly from the farewell-to-childhood tea party that closes The House at Pooh Corner – and a sense of growing up. After all, Milne wrote the stories for his son, and Christopher Robin is never rescued by magical stuffed animals: Even as a small boy, he is always the deus ex machina that resolves their conununderumerums. This contemporary script catches that tone exquisitely, while still finding space for kid-giggle pratfalls, and the delicate, absurdist humor of the books.
True, Christopher Robin may take a little time to get to those emotions, mainly due to a scene-setting introduction that could stretch the attention of the most wriggly children. But once Pooh and Christopher are again paw-in-hand, it's just enchanting. It's in Cummings' voice, and that slight sense of confusion and loss and optimism that always defines his kind-hearted depiction of the bear of very little brain. It's in cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser's beautiful capturing of the rolling, heather-dotted English countryside. It's in the truly remarkable work of the effect team, who curtail the cartoonishness and instead make the toys feel like real period toys. True, the designs often hew much more to the "classic Pooh" set out by Disney animator Wolfgang Reitherman and his team for 1966's Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, than to E.H. Shepard's original illustrations. But the final design looks like someone took Reitherman's work to a 1920s bear manufacturer like Steiff or the Ideal Toy Company and said, "Make these." There's something about Pooh's thinning mohair, or the grey along Piglet's pink furrowed brow that will make the stiffest of British upper lips tremble.
But it all hangs from a pitch-perfect performance by McGregor, who does as much to breathe life into his old friends as anyone. He believes that the silly old bear is right there, and so will you.