Full disclosure: I did not grow up watching or reading about Winnie the Pooh. In fact, my only exposure to Milne’s world so far has been through the 2011 Disney animated movie. Jim Cummings, who was terrific as the voice of Pooh and Tigger in that movie, reprises both roles in Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin. That’s about all the two movies have in common. Just like its titular character, the movie also seems to have lost something special, something childlike.
As a child, Christopher Robin used to spend his playtime in the Hundred Acre Wood, with his stuffed toy pals Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and others. Pooh is a bear who cares only about honey and his friends, Piglet is scared of things, and Eeyore is depressed. Their adventures always involve the animals being silly and getting themselves into trouble, and Christopher saving them. However, as he grows up, supposedly too old to be playing with stuffed animals, he has to say goodbye to his friends. As an adult, played by Ewan McGregor, he loses sight of the things that are important in life, friends, family, fun, and devotes himself to a dull, thankless job. One day, Pooh crosses over from the Wood to the human world, and craziness ensues as the animals try to save Christopher from unhappiness.
The movie, while pleasant, falls short of the potential of that premise. Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince is another movie that dealt with the idea that growing up should not mean we forget what it’s like to be a child, and why happiness matters more than our day-to-day routine. In fact, this is a fairly common theme in children’s movies. This means that in order to be anything more than just pleasant, the film must either put a new spin on it or simply cover its lack of originality up with charm and manic energy.
Christopher Robin, however, is as by-the-numbers as it gets. Mark Gatiss plays the boss who just won’t give Christopher a break. Hayley Atwell plays the wife who just wishes he would be around more. As talented as these actors are, they can’t help their characters rise above the shallow writing, leading to characters as one-dimensional as the stuffed animals. And as adorable as Pooh is, whenever Jim Cummings uses that deep voice of his to deliver what’s supposed to be a wise, philosophical observation, what comes out is trite.
When the movie works best is when Christopher is having fun with his friends, reconnecting with his fun side. Even that aspect of the movie isn’t perfect, since at times it feels like Forster is more interested in telling us that his characters are having fun than in just letting us live the moment. That said, it is always, at the very least, endearing, in large part due to Ewan McGregor’s performance. He takes a tried-and-tested mold, the adult who has lost touch with his inner child, and infuses it with heart and energy. Because of this, even when Christopher is being his dull self, McGregor has an arresting screen presence, keeping us engaged in his story.
The 2011 animated Winnie the Pooh is an exuberant celebration of childhood, and stylistically unique. It’s the perfect film to get younger kids hooked on movies. Christopher Robin is a tired, somber return to that world, and while it’s an entertaining ride for both kids and adults, it’s not particularly memorable for either. I recommend watching it, but only if you’re so invested in these characters that your enjoyment of it gets a boost from nostalgia.