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CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) review

August 15, 2018

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written by: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder (screenplay) & Greg Booker and Mark Steven Johnson (story)
produced by: Brigham Taylor and Kristin Burr
directed by: Marc Forster
rated: PG (for some action)
runtime: 104 min.
U.S. release date: August 3, 2018

 

Despite its title, Disney’s “Christopher Robin” will be known as the latest Winnie the Pooh movie, kind of like how Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” is remembered best as  a Peter Pan movie. Clearly, its not the first time that writers have taken a different approach to familiar material, but the tone and feel to this movie, helmed by Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland” and “Stranger Than Fiction”) is strangely unique, resulting an enjoyably effective viewing experience. Disney has definitely had the most recognizable iteration of  A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard’s creation, debuting animated adorable pals and their honey-loving friend, Pooh bear, fifty-two years ago, so it figures a live-action take on these characters and the Hundred Acre Wood they inhabit would be next as the studio is currently in the midst of utilizing such a method to seemingly every animated feature classic in their vault. The target audience for these characters widens with “Christopher Robin”, as the film resonates with just about every age in its quest to emphasize what’s important in life. 

What with the titular character no longer in boyhood, it appears there’s more than just one similarity to “Hook” here than the movie’s namesake. Still, knowing that the plot is very similar to what is arguably a lesser entry from The Beard, the nagging question going in was whether or not “Christopher Robin” would offer something more than just a story about a workaholic adult reconnecting with his youth and in turn learning what (or who) is important in life. In short, “yes” it does actually and much of that has to do with the approach taken here, specifically the surprisingly subtle and seamless manner in which actors act alongside digitally animated worn-out floppy stuffed animals. I never thought a live-action Winnie the Pooh movie (see, I can’t help it) could be any good, but having seen it, I confess to being quite smitten with the appropriate sweet and charming experience. That doesn’t mean the idea of updating every Disney animated classic with a live-action version is a good idea, it just means that this is a good one.

 

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Much is told before the movie’s title appears. We’re introduced to young Christopher Robin, an imaginative boy who spends his time in the Hundred Acre Wood with his pals, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger (both voiced by Jim Cummings) too, along with Owl (Toby Jones), Eeyore (a pitch-perfect Brad Garrett), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen), all of whom are throwing their friend a goodbye party (complete with an original ditty called “Goodbye Farewell”, one of a handful of new tunes from veteran Disney music man, Richard Sherman) since he is going away to boarding school. Translation: childhood is ending. Yes, despite Christopher’s promise that he’ll never ever forget his friends – we know that life happens. Those stuffed animals get left behind, tucked away in storage somewhere or (gasp) passed on to some other child.

Not soon after going off to school, the tug of adulthood calls for Christopher (Ewan McGregor) as he is confronted with grief with the loss of his father and trauma as he is scuttled off to fight in World War II with the other young Brits. When he returns, Christopher falls in love and marries Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and the two build a family with the arrival of daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). While Christopher’s absence is felt by his friends back in the Hundred Acre Wood, he devotes his time and energy at his place of employment, crunching numbers for a luggage company in London. With his mind on the demands of work, Christopher is pressured by his boss, Sir Giles Winslow, Jr. (Mark Gattis) to spend a holiday weekend working on making cuts that would likely effect the livelihood of his colleagues by instead of going away to the family cottage in Sussex, much to their dismay.

Frustrated by his work obligations, Christopher is flabbergasted to stumble upon none other than Pooh at a London park bench. Although he instantly recognizes his old friend, Christopher is still completely startled, which leads him to attempt to hide the stuffed bear as Pooh asks him to help him reunite with his friends back in the woods. Inevitably, the pair wind up back at the Hundred Acre Woods, by way of Sussex, finding them reuniting with their friends and possible warding off a Heffalump or Woozles. As Christopher reconnects with his childhood friends, he also becomes aware how family and friends must become a priority over the busyness of work and the value of doing nothing.

 

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Indeed, the premise of “Christopher Robin” is very much like “Hook”, which means the story undoubtedly has a certain predictability to it. Still, I prefer how this tale is told over that 1991 release with its enthusiastic emphasis to please. That’s mainly because of what Forster and company bring to the material on an aesthetic level, with its earth tones and skies that are either overcast or foggy, it’s an approach that we’re not necessarily expecting, but it fits nonetheless. The cinematography work from Matthias Koenigswieser (who lensed Forster’s previous film “All I See Is You”) provides the film with a warmth that adds to the light tone that Christopher winds up reconnecting with.

There is definitely whimsy and humor to be found here, but it’s all through the eyes of the titular character, not through the innocence and naivety of the boy he once was. I wouldn’t call the movie dark (although when Christopher reunites with Eeyore, he’s basically interrupting the depressed donkey’s suicide attempt), but it is perhaps more adult than what audiences expect out of “the new Winnie the Pooh movie”. A younger viewer probably won’t relate to the pressures of adult responsibilities, but my bet is they can understand feeling overlooked or let down by a parent who always seems to back out of their promises. So, maybe the emotional color of the movie is variations of gray, but that too is something all ages can relate to.

The fun of the movie is seeing how the human characters react to stuffed animals who are animated (as opposed to animated stuffed animals) in a typically stiff English environment. That’s certainly how Pooh and Tigger and the rest of the gang appear, but we know them to be real, interactive characters because we expect that of them and have a history with them. They are endearing and relatable and have many of the same attributes, curiosities and concerns that either we once did or currently still do. So, it’s funny and fun to see how Christopher and his family and even Christopher’s fellow colleagues at his job respond to these adorable characters, making their introductions some of the more memorable moments of the movie. Admittedly, seeing walking/talking stuffed animals engage with humans feels familiar thanks to the recent “Paddington” movies, which far more enjoyable and clever than what is offered here, “Christopher Robin” still provides a sweet and humorous tale that is often kind of surprisingly wistful and reflective.

“Christopher Robin” reminds us that McGregor’s talent shouldn’t be taken for granted, a sentiment that also goes for the wonderful voice talent of Jim Cummings. McGregor shows great expressions here as the title character, whether he’s overwhelmed with the burdens of his job or disappointed in himself for letting down his daughter, but what I wound up treasuring the most was his physicality, which often deftly navigates some choice comedic bits. Seeing him work alongside a stuffed bear is a treat too, even if its a digitally-enhanced costar. The characters of Pooh and Tigger call for two very different voices altogether and Cummings (who’s been voicing both for years now) fits them perfectly with just the right timing and poignancy the characters call for. If anyone draws the short straw, it’s Atwell who does the best with her atypical ‘concerned wife/mother’ and only gets in on the fun during the movie’s third act when the stuffed pals make it to London to return some important work papers to Christopher. Someone with Atwell’s talent and engaging charisma with the camera should get better parts, a lead role even, but alas, the movie isn’t called “Evelyn Robin”.

Forster knows that he has an enduring and treasured set of well-worn characters to work with, so placing them in a different setting and providing a new perspective for Christopher is really half the work. To compare this movie with Forster’s previous works, two films come to mind, “Finding Neverland” (we can’t seem to get away from Peter Pan, can we?) and “Stranger Than Fiction”, in which we find an adult character reacquainting himself with what matters him in life or finding out more about himself through strange situations, both of which can be found in “Christopher Robin”. Sure, they’ll be some who may not get what they’re expecting here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable viewing experience. After all, a movie that reminds adults not to lose the child within and appropriately prioritize family, while providing some clever laughs along the way, well that’s a success.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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