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Saturday, August 04, 2018

Christopher Robin

Marc Foster's Christopher Robin is all at once charming and odd, not to mention whimsical and baffling.  It's impossible not to think of Steven Spielberg's Hook when you're watching it, because both films deal with a childhood literary character who has grown up to become a workaholic who neglects his family, and must return to his childhood fantasy world in order to get some balance in his life.  But whereas the Spielberg movie was a soulless amusement park blockbuster film, Foster's vision of Winnie the Pooh is somber, gloomy, and kind of wise. (At one point, Pooh tells Christopher Robin, "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day".)

What will kids think of it?  I honestly don't know.  I think if I was watching it when I was 10 years old, I would have preferred the movies about the animated superheroes.  The bright and colorful Winnie the Pooh characters are now worn-looking three dimensional dolls come to life.  They have bits of thread hanging off of them, and some look like they could have some more stuffing added to them.  Pooh himself, a self-professed "bear of little brain", is as warm and endearing as ever, but he's been given a blank stare that can be oddly full of expression at certain times.  It's hard to know at times who this film is intended for.  The three credited screenwriters, Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures) have made a movie that is all at once full of fantasy, but also gloomy and kind of sad.  At times I felt a bit confused myself about how I was reacting to it.  But, in the end, I am recommending it with a few reservations, as there are moments that don't work.  But most of it does in a weird way.

The film opens with a young Christopher Robin (Orton O'Brien) having one last moment of fun with Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods before he is to be sent away by his parents to boarding school.  We see the teachers at the school frown upon imagination and his fanciful drawings of his friends.  Then Christopher's father dies off camera, and he is sent home for the funeral, where he is told by a family member that he must be the man of the house now.  He grows up (now played by Ewan McGregor as an adult), falls in love with a woman named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and they have a daughter named Madeline (a wonderful Bronte Carmichael).  But Christopher has no time to spend with his wife and new daughter, as he is sent off to fight in World War II, while Evelyn raises their child alone.

The main action picks up a few years after Christopher has returned from the War.  His daughter is a bright and serious-minded child who has little time for fun, and Christopher himself now works long hours for a luggage company and a dolt of a boss (Mark Gatiss) who wants Christopher to find a way to cut costs for the company, and probably fire some of his own co-workers.  Evelyn loves her husband, but she is clearly growing frustrated at how he is constantly putting his job before his family.  Now Christopher must stay behind and figure out the company finances while his family goes off on a weekend holiday.  It is at this moment that Winnie the Pooh (voice by Jim Cummings) decides to re-enter Christopher Robin's life.  Pooh's friends have gone missing, and knows that Christopher is the only one who can help.  So the little stuffed bear finds a door that leads to London, and he quickly tracks down his former best friend.

This leads to some of the film's best moments, as Pooh walks around and tries to figure out post-war London. (When he sees a ticket-taker at a train station in a gated office, Pooh reasonably asks, "Why is that man in a cage"?) As for Christopher, he is somewhat annoyed by the return of his childhood playmate.  Pooh can't stay away from honey, and winds up making a mess around the house.  The silly old bear also can't seem to understand the fact that Christopher just can't stop what he's doing and go off on an adventure to find Pooh's animal friends either.  But eventually, Christopher is pulled back into the Hundred Acre Woods, once his childhood playground, which is now a foggy and eerie place made up of a largely dead landscape.  As Christopher and Pooh search for their friends, the movie takes on a strangely somber and spooky vibe that some young viewers might find unsettling.  This is not the bright and cheery movie some families might be expecting.  And while the gloomy vibe does eventually lift, the sometimes slow pace of the film ensures that it's going to be quite a while until it does.

The third act of the film focuses on Pooh, energetic Tigger (also voiced by Jim Cummings), sweet and shy Piglet (voice by Nick Mohammad), and the gloomy Eeyore (voice by Brad Garrett) entering the real world, and getting involved in a car chase that seems out of place in a Winnie the Pooh story.  Regardless, the classic characters are treated with respect, and I think that is what is really important here.  Christopher Robin feels a bit off and weird at times, but at its heart, it knows the message that it is trying to send to its audiences, and that is to take a break once in a while and enjoy life.  It's a noble message, and it comes across clear.  There is also a sweetness and gentleness to the film that comes with Pooh.  It's the kind of movie where a red balloon can be the most important thing in the world, and play and imagination is vital.  For all of the film's occasional missteps and oddly moody tone, the message does come loud and clear, and there is enough to like here in order to recommend.  Parents should just be prepared that this might not be the fun and lighthearted kids movie they might be expecting.

There is a certain experimental aspect to Christopher Robin, almost as if the filmmakers were trying to make an art house film about Pooh Bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods.  I guess Disney should be commended.  The studio easily could have gone the straight forward and marketable approach, but instead have given us this odd yet engaging film.  It may be somber and eerie at times, but Pooh is always there to give his calming logic.  Much like the documentary about Mr. Rogers we got this summer, Pooh reminds us of a warmth and sweetness that is largely missing from our current world.

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