Fans of A.A. Milne’s delightful stories about an industrious, honey-obsessed bear named Winnie the Pooh and his gang of forest-dwelling droogs — Kanga and her child Roo, pragmatic Rabbit, wise old Owl, anxious Piglet, the emo-dour donkey Eeyore, the manic and possibly Meth-addicted dynamo that is Tigger — may recall that, at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, there’s a farewell party. Christopher Robin, their young human friend, is saying goodbye; he’s heading off to a world far beyond the land of heffalumps and woozles. The scene is recreated in the beginning of Disney’s new live-action movie set in what we guess we’re now calling the Poohniverse (thank you, Twitter!), as young Christopher (Orton O’Brien) cavorts with CGI versions of his old pals. Then, after a valedictory walk with Winnie — in which we see the stuffed animal run his hands over the tops of flowers in what is the single greatest cribbed Terrence Malick shot ever — the lad leaves. The film then proceeds to answer the question that many, or some, or maybe absolutely no one, has been asking for decades: So like, what happened to Christopher Robin after that?
Well, for starters, he goes to boarding school. Then the teenage Christopher gets a firsthand dose of what tragedy feels like, turns into Ewan McGregor, enlists in Her Majesty’s armed services as WWII rages, moves to London, meets Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) on a bus, gets married, becomes a dad and gets a job in the efficiency department of a luggage company. You know: life, etc. (The incidents are introduced via chapters that are dead ringers for artist E.H. Shepard’s illustrations in the books — a sublime touch, this.) The fact that his coworkers all vaguely resemble his old crew is not a coincidence; also, he may have to fire them if he can’t satisfy his boss (Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss) by finding cuts elsewhere. This means Mr. Robin will need to work all weekend to meet a deadline, thus blowing off a family getaway at their Sussex cottage, much to the dismay of his daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Morose, our hero sits on a park bench … and there’s his old friend Winnie, sitting behind him. Will the adult Christopher Robin discover that, having left childish things behind, he needs to regain that part of himself in order to get his priorities straight? Does a Pooh bear shit in the woods?
Once the two head back to their old stomping ground in search of their old furry friends, there’s every reason to think that Christopher Robin is going to turn into another tale of borrowed bedtime-story mythology in the name of inner-child nurturing — a Hook for the Hundred Acre Woods set. It’s not quite that toxic, thanks in no small part to McGregor’s game performance as a confused, conflicted man fighting obstacles real (paternal guilt, a marriage on the rocks, missing papers that could cost him his livelihood) and imagined (killer heffalumps!). He’s an actor who can roll with this movie’s punches, whether it requires him to be light on his feet or dragged down by existential despair, exhilarated by childlike play or exasperated by a house-wrecking creature who says things like, “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.” (This movie could paraphrase the tagline from the original Superman: “You’ll believe a man could talk to a bear who speaks in Zen riddles.”) And yes, thanks to a screenplay from unusual suspects like Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Alex Ross Perry (the guy behind Listen Up, Philip?!?), things do get dark. You can’t discount just how disturbing it is to witness the psychodrama of a man screaming at a stuffed animal.
As for director Marc Forster, he’s the type of utility player who’s done everything from batshit absurdism-lite (Stranger Than Fiction) to Bond flicks (Quantum of Solace), intense character dramas (Monster’s Ball) and postapocalyptic zombie epics (World War Z). What probably got him this job, however, is Finding Neverland, his 2004 Oscar-nominated take on the story of J.M Barrie and the real-life inspirations for Peter Pan — its mix of whimsy, teeth-gnashing, fantasy, melodrama, name-brand actors and period-piece production design feels like a dry run for what he’s doing here. Whereas that earlier movie often felt annoyingly cloying, however, Christopher Robin only feels occasionally sticky: Every time things start to get goopy, we get silent-comedy slapstick like Pooh destroying the Robins’ household. Or pomo digs like Eeyore moaning, “Oh no, not the song!” as Tigger launches into his introductory theme tune. (Kudos to the top-notch voicework here, especially from Pooh O.G. Jim Cummings and Brad Garrett as the depressed beast of burden.) Or breathtaking visuals like a low-angle shot of McGregor leading a bouncing, skipping, shuffling menagerie across a hilltop. It’s a superior model of library-card nostalgia.
Then the whole shebang switches from the countryside back to the big city and turns into a quest to find an M.I.A. Madeline — who’s gone to London, Tigger & Co. in tow, to track down her dad — and the rest of the movie switches into pure momentum mode. It’s funny to see how the movie glides past scenes of Brits gaping and gawking at talking toys and anarchic comic moments that movies like Shaun the Sheep would make whole meals of as it rushes to reunite everybody and restore order. At that point, it’s all over but the shouting and the weeping and the bad-guy comeuppance and every single dad in the audience thinking, Jesus, I really should spend way more time with my kids.
Brand-name extension, selling toys to kids and pushing the “Cats in the Cradle” pressure points of adults are not strange bedfellows in the slightest. But you do wish that the seams holding together an odd, lyrical story of childhood innocence lost and regained and what’s essentially a tonier version of goofy children’s movie didn’t show so blatantly. It never feels like Poohsploitation, but it never finds a tone that can connect the two into a cohesive whole, either. So you simply take what you can get here. And sometimes, when Christopher Robin hits you with a perfectly gentle ribbing or drops an image of McGregor and Pooh sitting together on a log — so much depends on a red balloon glazed with magic-hour light beside the star of Trainspotting — it’s more than enough.