REVIEW – ‘Christopher Robin’

Every so often, we’re handed two painfully similar family film offerings released close together, with one invariably attempt to match or exceed its predecessor. Shark Tale had the unfortunate task of attempting to best Finding NemoSurf’s Up came up against the penguin juggernaut that was Happy Feet. And this year, Disney’s Christopher Robin arrives at a time when the world has already recently gone bananas over another lovable animated teddy bear in Paddington 2. Oh, bother indeed.

While Disney’s re-imagining of one of its most beloved icons tries admirably to reach the lofty heights set by the little bear in the blue coat, Christopher Robin never quite gets there. With a tale that’s unexpectedly despondent at times, there’s a decidedly gloomy tone hanging over much of this film. That’s not inherently a bad thing. It just may not be quite the film you’re expecting. But when the clouds do part and the joy shines through, it’s every bit as utterly adorable and perfectly charming as you could hope.

Our story begins with a young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) preparing to leave his beloved Hundred Acre Wood, bound for boarding school. His friends Winnie the Pooh (a phenomenal Jim Cummings), Tigger (also voiced by Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (a naturally scene-stealing Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) host a bittersweet farewell party where Christopher promises he will never forget them. But, as cinema often shows us, childhood promises are easily broken.

Through a storybook montage, we follow Christopher as he struggles through his new life at boarding school, particularly when his father unexpectedly passes away. Putting his school days behind him, the adult Christopher (Ewan McGregor) meets and marries Evelyn (a rather wasted Hayley Atwell) but is soon shipped off to war, leaving his pregnant wife behind. With a typically British “chin up and carry on” attitude, Evelyn raises their young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) on her own while Christopher fights abroad.

Upon his return, Christopher begins a career as an efficiency manager at Winslow Luggage, leading to long hours and, unsurprisingly, no time for his wife and child. Much like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, this workaholic lifestyle creates a jarring disconnect between father and family, typified by his need to cancel his plans to join Evelyn and Madeline for a weekend at their country cottage in Suffolk. Times are tough at the luggage manufacturer, and Christopher’s weaselly boss Giles Winslow Jr. (Mark Gatiss) has insisted he spends the weekend finding a way to drastically cut costs (i.e. sack a few dozen people) or risk losing his job.

Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh awakens one foggy morning to find his treasured friends have all gone missing. With nowhere else to look, Pooh decides to waddle through the tree door that once brought Christopher Robin to his own world. As fate would have it, the door opens in a quaint little park, right outside Christopher’s London home. Sure enough, Pooh soon bumps into the grown-up Christopher, whom he immediately recognises as his old friend. Deciding to help Pooh locate the rest of the gang, Christopher journeys back to his childhood playland where he’ll reconnect with his past and hopefully regain the youthful spirit he lost long ago.

It’s not the greatest of setups for this adventure. One can’t overlook the fact that Christopher Robin bluntly refuses to abandon his work in favour of time with his desperate wife and daughter, but seemingly has no issue doing so at the request of a magical talking teddy bear. Then again, you can’t really blame him. Who could honestly refuse the infectious cuteness of Winnie the Pooh and the chance to recapture your childhood again? Unfortunately, it casts Christopher as somewhat of an irresponsible and uncaring twat. When that’s your lead character, it can make it somewhat difficult to genuinely want to follow their journey. Mr. Banks was not the lead of Mary Poppins for this very reason.

There’s a concerted effort to give his journey deeper meaning where we find Christopher learning the importance of family and never fully losing touch with the innocence of youth. But it’s wrapped up in a rather befuddled message of “doing nothing leads to something,” which is a little too deep to make too much sense to younger audiences. “Winnie the Pooh told me to do nothing, Dad!” is hardly an incantation you want your children adopting. It circles around to make sense in the end by cleverly linking back to Christopher’s workplace dilemma. However, by the time it gets there, you’ve likely forgotten what on earth the film is really trying to say.

The journey itself is surprisingly grim. The melancholia begins early on and barely ever leaves. When a film begins with a sad farewell, an audience inevitably becomes desperate for the happy reunion. Christopher Robin takes a rather exhaustive amount of time to arrive back at this point. Even when it does, it’s not quite the joyful hello you may be expecting. The narrative wisely dots in moments of joy and slapstick humour, here and there, so, thankfully, it’s far from an entirely dour piece of cinema. But this is being marketed as a children’s film, and while the film’s tonal juxtapositions are refreshingly impressive, they probably won’t sit particularly well with younger ones.

In a rather bizarre twist on this classic tale, Pooh and his friends are not located entirely in Christopher’s imagination, like they have been since 1926. Again, it’s an odd setup that can be rather jarring. Yes, it’s entirely delightful to see the naturally freaked out reactions of anyone in London who witnesses this pack of toys coming to life, but it somewhat cheapens the history of this beloved brand and feels unnatural to anyone remotely familiar with the source material. It’s admirable Disney wanted something different, but this conceit never truly goes anywhere besides the occasional stranger witnessing the truth behind an innocuous-looking collection of stuffed toys.

That being said, the CGI character design of Pooh and co. is utterly flawless and downright delightful, with each animal looking like genuinely well-weathered childhood toys rather than the cartoon characters we fondly know. Their movements, both body and mouth, feel natural and earnest, resulting in the characters blending perfectly with the human world around them. Some may find their muted colours a disappointment (particularly Tigger whose black stripes are nothing more than a faded memory), but it adds a level of authenticity to a film heavily planted in fantasy. These truly feel like the forgotten toys of a child’s past, thanks to the genius talents of those behind the computer screens.

The voice talent behind the main animated characters only elevate them further. Jim Cummings has been voicing Winnie the Pooh for over three decades now, and there really was no other man for the job. Pooh’s sweet and naive charm is entirely Cummings’ creation, delivering lines which consistently melt your heart and bring a tear to your eye, particularly one sob-inducing moment where Pooh asks Christopher what he means by “letting some people go” at the office. If this moment doesn’t hit you right in the heart, you may need to check your pulse. Cummings flips the switch and brings unbridled enthusiasm to Tigger, which you’ll either entirely adore or utterly despise. He’s always been a rather divisive character, so you’ll likely already know where you sit on the fence on this one.

Garrett is the perfect choice for the depressively monotone Eeyore, getting all the best lines and gifting the film some much-needed levity. The rest of the voice cast isn’t given a whole lot to do, but make the most with what they’re given. When combined, they create a charming group of innocent and fiercely loyal companions for the titular character. McGregor really has been given a thankless role here, trying his utmost to rise above the difficulties of playing an initially unlikeable character opposite a whole swam of lovable creatures. He does tend to get lost along the way, but, after all, you’re probably not really here to see him.

You likely buy your ticket to Christopher Robin to see anyone but the title character, and you are indeed given a heartwarming and delightful journey back to the Hundred Acre Wood, which can never really be a bad thing. Pooh is so damn adorable, you’ll want to reach through the screen and give him a hug. Likewise with Eeyore. There are moments of true beauty to be found here, even if they can be terribly sombre. It’s an engaging and entertaining spin on these classic characters which never loses sight of the real heart of this tale. Perhaps not quite as sweet as “hunny” but still entirely palatable.

And just a heads up for the pure Disney fans out there – don’t leave your seat when the film ends. There’s a lovely surprise cameo from a Disney legend during the credits that will bring a huge smile to your face.

★★★☆☆

Distributor: Walt Disney
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss
Voice Cast: Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Director: Marc Forster
Screenplay: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schoeder, story by Greg Brooker, Mark Steven Johnson
Producers: Brigham Taylor, Kristin Burr
Cinematography: Matthias Konigswieser
Production Design: Jennifer Williams

Music: Geoff Zanellik, Jon Brion
Editor: Matt Chesse
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: 13th September 2018 (Australia)

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