Christopher Robin Hollowly Comments on the Loss of Childhood
Last year a good movie came out that nobody saw called Goodbye Christopher Robin. It was about the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh, the relationship between A.A. Milne and his son, and how child stardom affected the young Christopher Robin psychologically and emotionally. It’s quite interesting, you should see it; especially now it’ll be overshadowed by Disney’s Christopher Robin, which has little but a title in common with it.
Christopher Robin is not about the origin of Winnie-the-Pooh, and its title characters’ connection with the biographical Christopher Robin is tenuous, picking some facts while ignoring enough others to avoid liability. Instead, it’s a sequel of sorts to the Disney Winnie the Pooh franchise, about a grown-up Christopher Robin returning to the Hundred Acre Wood and reuniting with his old friends. And it works about as well as that plot was ever going to.
After leaving his home in Sussex for a boarding school and subsequently fighting in the Second World War, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has a mind-numbingly boring job at a luggage manufacturing company. He doesn’t spend much time with his wife (Hayley Atwell) and is about to send his emotionally distant daughter (Bronte Carmichael) off to boarding school as well.
When his old teddy bear Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) shows up in London looking for his friends, Christopher determines to take him back to the Hundred Acre Wood where he’ll be forced to confront his new-found priorities and lost imagination.
In addition to more or less just aping the plot of Hook, Christopher Robin is a highly objectionable film to me. Winnie the Pooh, even under the Disney umbrella, has always been about the power of childhood imagination, and Christopher Robin doesn’t understand this. The Hundred Acre Wood is less another world than it is an aspect of our own that naturally begets an imaginative expression. What this movie does is attempt to apply an adult logic and real world sensibility to Winnie the Pooh, unaware that it has no place doing so. The two are incompatible. One of the ways it tries this is by having Pooh and co. interact with people and a bustling 1940s London, in the process answering a question about the nature of their reality that was never asked, and in so doing cheapening their appeal. Neither the original books nor the Disney films ever definitively addressed whether the characters were stuffed toys who came to life, merely existent in Christopher Robins’ imagination, or just residents of the Hundred Acre Wood, because to do so would take away from the power they had in the minds of children. There’s a reason no humans other than Christopher Robin ever appear in Winnie the Pooh. Writing about his own creation as also applies to Winnie the Pooh, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson said, “The nature of Hobbes’ reality doesn’t interest me… Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I think that’s how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way... Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.” Well in Christopher Robin, it is about dolls coming to life, and it’s saddening that this movie is depriving children of that ambiguity, and from perceiving these characters’ essence in their own way for a few cheap gags of Londoners being baffled by talking toys.
The story’s pretty flimsy as well and the writing pretty awful. It’s incredibly on-the-nose with its main theme which is demonstrably cliché at this point -even more so considering there’s no reason given as to why Christopher Robin is this way. Hook at least attempted to explain this, Christopher Robin just plays the all-too-common joyless adulthood card. The title character himself is a caricature and it’s not one of Ewan McGregor’s better performances, Hayley Atwell is wasted in a part that could have been given to anyone less talented, and Mark Gatiss, though nice to see getting some exposure, might as well be playing another hammy Doctor Who villain.
The one really good thing about the movie is the Winnie the Pooh characters, all of whom embody the right spirit if perhaps not quite the design (Tigger and Eeyore in particular look old and faded). Though bigger names like Toby Jones, Brad Garrett, Sophie Okonedo, and Peter Capaldi are among the voice talent, Jim Cummings is the movies’ biggest strength. One of, if not the most versatile voice actors since Mel Blanc, Cummings has been the voice of Pooh for thirty years, and Tigger for thirteen; and he’s finally being given the adulation and credit he deserves, even getting a place in the opening titles (a rare thing for non-“celebrity” voice performers). It’s also rather comforting among all the other starkly different voices to hear the specific Pooh voice many of us were endeared to as children. However as good as these characters are, when they’re not on the sidelines of Christopher Robin’s story, they’re often just repeating routines from other Winnie the Pooh films, such as Pooh’s morning routine, Tigger’s song, or Tigger being confused by a mirror.
And these scenes show more than anything else that Winnie the Pooh doesn’t belong in live-action. It expressed a kind of whimsy that looks charming and sweet in animation, but hokey when performed by live actors, even with pretty decently rendered CGI stuffed animals. A terribly contrived story and fundamental ignorance of what made Winnie the Pooh such a beacon of childhood innocence and imagination doesn’t win the movie any points either.