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When the first trailers for Disney’s Christopher Robin were released, I knew that it was a movie that would make me cry at least once, if not multiple times. I am, after all, a sucker for nostalgia and for dreaming of times long since passed. It looked to be a movie focused purely on looking back at the joys of childlike wonder, imagination, and friendship. True to form, the film did make me openly cry a couple of times, but what I didn’t expect was to be angry at the film for doing so. Christopher Robin doesn’t pull tears of nostalgia, rather, it wallows in gloomy sadness, spending most of it’s runtime sending confusingly mixed signals and only briefly touching on the joyous adventures of friends. It’s a kids film with so little in it for actual kids, instead serving as a minefield of emotionally manipulative bombs for adults designed to make them feel horrible about everything from their professional lives to their familial faults.
Work hard at your job to give your family a better life? You’re a piece of shit. Grew up and left your toys behind? They’ve been waiting for you to return this entire time, you heartless monster. Want your kids to get the best education? Kids are supposed to do nothing but play you terrible fascist! These are some of the lessons for adults that could be pulled form Christopher Robin. While you’ll find me as one of the first people agreeing that staying young-at-heart is important, and finding the fun and joy in life is paramount, this film cakes on such condemnation for living an adult life that it borders on damnation.
Christopher Robin starts with the titular character spending his final day as a child in the Hundred-Acre Wood before going off to boarding school, much like in the original books. He’s thrown a party by his seemingly imaginary friends before saying his goodbyes. What follows is a borderline depressing montage of the loyal Pooh waiting for his friends return all while Christopher grows up, encountering death, love, and even including an unexpectedly violent look into his service during World War II. Time passes, families grow, all the while Pooh and his friends fade into the forgotten.
Flash forward and now Christopher has seemingly turned into one of the worst things you can be in a kids film: a dad with a job. When his boss tells him he needs to find a way to save his company 25% in costs, his forced to forego a pre-planned holiday to the countryside with his family, inadvertently prompting Pooh back into his life. This leads to crazy, madcap adventures. Oh wait, no, it really doesn’t. It leads to Christopher being annoyed and yelling at his completely real, loyal, and kind talking stuffed bear friend for most of the movie. It’s not exactly a joy to behold.
Ewan McGregor is decent as the adult Christopher Robin, able to switch from a workaholic dad to one who’s rediscovered his playful imagination with ease. He does a wonderful job interacting with characters that were added in post production, keeping things lively once he finally switches gears.
The rest of the human cast isn’t given any favors, particularly the normally lovely Hayley Atwell. As Christopher’s wife, Evelyn, she exists solely to remind him of how much his work life is ruining their family. She has no agency whatsoever, instead coming off as unreasonable and petty. Even when encouraging her daughter, played well by Bronte Carmichael, to go play, she can only come up with examples from Christopher’s childhood rather than her own. it’s a thankless, nearly joyless role for such a shining actress.
The voice talents fare much better, giving the animals of Hundred-Acre wood their delightful personalities and bringing a brightness to the film when they’re allowed to run free. Jim Cummings brings a warm sweetness, and sometimes heartbreak to Pooh, while also lending his voice to the madcap and delightful Tigger. Brad Garrett is the absolute standout as Eeyore, getting some of the best one-liners in the film. It feels that once the adult Christopher Robin crosses paths with the depressive donkey, the movie begins to pick up. The rest of the voices do their job well, with Toby Jones and Peter Capaldi filling in as Owl and Rabbit, respectively.
Director Marc Forster does admittedly bring a gorgeous eye to the proceedings, with some wistfully gorgeous shots reminiscent of the works of Terrence Malick or Ang Lee. However, the film follows in a seemingly-growing tradition of live-action Disney films whose color palette is drained, muted, dulling everything under a shade of foggy grey. Previous films like Pete’s Dragon, Beauty and the Beast, and Into The Woods felt this way, and trailers for Mary Poppins Returns and Dumbo seem to confirm this trend is moving forward. Christopher Robin, while containing plenty of moments of genuinely gorgeous imagery, is often shot by cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser with all the visual feel of a historical war film.
It’s worth noting that the score by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion tugs on the nostalgia strings when bringing back familiar Winnie the Pooh themes, and the movie does contain three new songs from legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman. The effects are also fairly impressive, even through muted colors. The beloved characters look wonderfully realized, and their interactions with their real-world surroundings bring several chuckles and inject the finale of the film with some of that much needed joy.
The ‘workaholic father finding himself’ trope isn’t anything that you haven’t seen before, especially in other fantasy family films such as Hook, Click, or Liar, Liar. It’s just that Christopher Robin makes it feel so much more exploitative and unpleasant. Pooh is and always has been a loyal friend, spouting off whimsical philosophies that spotlight his carefree nature, almost like a dutiful pet dog who can talk. Thing is, up until the last 30 minutes of the film or so, this lovely, sweet-natured friend spends his time being yelled at and stressed over by Christopher.
The fact of the film is, until he meets Eeyore again, Christopher Robin is straight up not fun to watch or experience because everything is so melancholy. It’s sad to see Pooh say goodbye to his young friend, and to see Christopher grow up through all the hardships of life (and literal, actual war!). It’s sad to see Pooh waiting for his friend to return, for years and years, and to see what Christopher has become in the eyes of the film. But then it’s angering to watch Christopher reunited with his whimsical, actual talking bear friend and treat him like an annoyance for the next 60 minutes. It’s a talking stuffed bear, Christopher! Even the coldest most workaholic father would recognize how amazing that is to have back!
Not only that, but the storytelling gymnastics the film makes are sometimes maddening. The original books posited Pooh and his friends as imaginary, and Christopher as having to grow up eventually and move on. The film, however, goes to great lengths to show these friends are real, talking beings, having them interact with many other human characters. This choice makes Christopher’s abandonment seem all the more terrible. Picture the depressing thought that Robin is someone who completely left his real-life friends behind to live alone in the woods, waiting for his return that might never come, seemingly forever. How do you pull back from that nosedive of an idea?
The film also wants to tell us that he’s failing as a father and a husband because of his work, pushing his family away by reading his daughter encyclopedia stories rather than Treasure Island and insisting she go to the best boarding school in the country. But if you look at his plight, Christopher is a man who doesn’t WANT to work on the weekends, even telling his boss as much, but is forced to do so in order to figure out how to potentially save the jobs of others.
If Christopher had been shown voluntarily giving up his family time for work, then this concept might’ve clicked. But instead we’re given a man who works on the weekends because of an overbearing boss, who comes home to an unsympathetic wife putting down massive declarations such as “this weekend IS your life”.
I’ll admit, when the movie shifts back to having fun, it begins to come alive again. There’s a scene where Christopher begins to go back to his playful, imaginative days that starts out unconvincing but eventually won me over. Likewise, the extended sequence that serves as the finale of the film is every bit of madcap fun that you might have expected for the entire runtime of this film. But even then, the resolution to Christopher’s problems feels slight, even saccharine. The closing moments are among the most beautiful of the film, simply because it’s the only time that everyone on screen is enjoying themselves.
I had a very hard time imagining just who Christopher Robin was made for. Who is the target audience? It’s too dull for too long to be enjoyable for kids, as I imagine many of them will be squirming in their seats as Christopher yells at Pooh. It’s likewise a seemingly relentless guilt trip for adults as well, containing an uneven balance of nostalgia and pessimism. I couldn’t help but think that if I were a kid, the message I’d most take away from the film is that my parents working is a very bad thing and playtime is important above all else. Even then, it’s a movie about embracing the fun parts of life that takes entirely too long to embrace the fun parts of its own story. Ultimately, the film is incredibly disappointing as a fan of films, Disney, nostalgia, childhood, and fun.
The Final Pop
Disney’s Christopher Robin attempts, and ultimately fails, to further the adventures of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and friends. Despite occasionally gorgeous filmmaking and lovely voice performances, the overall cheerlessness for the majority of it’s runtime weighs down any delight that manages to shine through by the end.