Growing up, my older brother and I watched a healthy diet of Star Wars, Top Gun (no, I am not joking) and Winnie the Pooh. For whatever the reason my brother and I gravitated towards the soft-spoken honey-loving bear. We had all of his adventures on VHS (some of which I have now upgraded to Blu-Ray) and watched them all with great frequency. So who is this live-action Winnie the Pooh movie, called Christopher Robin (a movie that has been accused by some as being a crass piece of commercialism), aimed at? Well, it is aimed at people like my brother and I. People who grew up on Winnie the Pooh and now are armed with wallets that can supply our own brand of nostalgia.
On paper a live-action Winnie the Pooh movie sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Live action children’s cartoons call to mind such horrible recent movies like The Smurfs and past ones like Inspector Gadget (one of which Disney is responsible for). Disney is, of course, full steam ahead on their live-action remakes (a trend I actually don’t mind as much as others).
But, instead of Disney deciding to remake The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh or The Tigger Movie into live action form they opted instead to tell a Hook-style story of a grown-up, Christopher Robin. Christopher Robin now looks like 47-year old Ewan McGregor and struggles to connect with his young daughter and is distant from his wife as he buries himself in his work. Over the course of the weekend, Christopher Robin needs to abandon his family’s vacation plans to attend to work-related matters. Then, an old friend appears back into his life, Winnie the Pooh. Pooh leads Robin back to the 100-acre wood.
Yes, it is a simple story. Yes, it is a story we have seen before. Yes, it is clichéd. But whether we have seen a story before or not isn’t a very interesting question to me. Does it work regardless? Christopher Robin is Hook for Winnie the Pooh fans (but I like Hook so that doesn’t bother me) and I think that type of story is well suited for Winnie the Pooh. A live action story simply surrounding Winnie the Pooh and his pals would easily become The Smurfs under lesser hands or would like The Book of Pooh television show. Even though Christopher Robin is the least memorable character in the Winnie the Pooh stories, Robin is a wonderful framing deceive to not only bring our favorite stuffed animals back to the big screen (last time was seen in the underrated 2011 Winnie the Pooh animated film) and also bring an earnest story along with it.
Even though the characters eventually end up in the real world that’s not what this movie is about. This about a man rediscovering his old self and finding a new way to look at his present life. Without that main element, the movie would feel awkward with scary realistic looking CGI stuffed animals and it would also take away some of the innocent feelings of simplicity. Why would Winnie and his pals want to leave the 100-acre wood? To save Christopher Robin!
Eventually, the characters do leave the wood for sections of the movie. Thankfully this isn’t the main focus of the movie. There is a creative decision to allow the real world to be able to see Winnie the Pooh as Christopher sees him. While this does make some neat comedic moments I think that begins to go against not only the charm of the movie but also the original stories. The implication was Winnie the Pooh and his adventures were always Christopher Robin’s imagination. Perhaps if instead, they took a Calvin and Hobbes approach where only Christopher can see them moving around in the real world it would have played better? Like I said it isn’t the biggest portion of the movie and they do some clever things with the concept. Ultimately I found myself letting my critical guard down and just enjoying the ride.
It is interesting having Marc Foster direct this movie. His critically acclaimed film Finding Neverland (a look at the creation of Peter Pan) definitely had influence and inspired Simon Curtis’s behind the scenes look at the creation of Winnie the Pooh, Goodbye Christopher Robin. I don’t know if that means we have come full circle with Foster now directing a fictional Christopher Robin movie (it is at the very least a triangle) but Foster does seem like a natural fit (a far better fit then he was for the Bond film Quantum of Solace). He is good at grounded light drama and human connection with the magical.
There are some more odd choices he makes alongside directors of photography Matthias Koenigswieser like the use of handheld camera and a muted grey color scheme. This seems entirely inappropriate given that Winnie the Pooh is such a ray of sunshine. It oddly enough sort of works? This could be because when the movie is in its darker moments the greys are really grey and when the movie is lighter the sun is more muted but looks more natural than most studio productions. Perhaps the stuffed animals look better in this sort of color scheme. Maybe this could have been a little bit brighter but this is a gutsy visual look works when it probably shouldn’t.
The biggest question for me going into this movie was how will our favorite stuffed friends going to look on the big screen in a live action environment? It could look very cartoony or lifelike. Foster went with the more lifelike approach which out of context looks more appropriate for a Five-Night At Freddy’s movie. In the context of the movie, the visuals on Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore look fantastic. There are a few designs that I wasn’t a fan of like Rabbit and Owl. They look that looked less like Stuffed Animals and more like deranged real animals.
Jim Cummings returns to voice Winnie the Pooh/Tigger and his voice acting is always a true delight to hear. He may not have been the original voice but he has always been my favorite. Brad Garrett voices Eeyore and he has quickly established himself as the modern voice of Eeyore (no doubt those years playing the often overlooked brother in Everybody Loves Raymond has prepared him Eeyore). Some other voice acting I was less a fan of. Piglet sounded too vastly different than the traditional Piglet (Nick Mohammed). Rabbit’s voice (Peter Capaldi) has changed again and it unmemorable again. Every voice to take over the role since Ken Samson departed the role (and has since passed away) just hasn’t filled the void despite the voice actors best efforts. Despite a few caveats the characters have been brought to life in a very satisfying manner.
Ewan McGregor is the perfect lead for this sort of movie. He brings the right sort of earnestness while still leaning into the movie sillier moments without becoming to winky to the camera. He takes the role seriously without forgoing the more whimsical side of the performance.
Christopher Robin doesn’t reach the emotional heights that I was hoping it would but as a lifelong fan of the characters that A.A. Milne first created and that Disney Animation brought to life, this hit just the right notes, and that simple quiet wordplay humor is as irresistible as ever (I laughed a lot harder than any of the kids in my theater). I am not entirely on board with Winnie the Pooh interacting with the real world but there are enough clever moments to make it worth it. The story isn’t anything original but it succeeds at doing exactly what it needs to be, Hook for Winnie the Pooh fans (not that Winnie the Pooh stories have ever been anything but simple). The movie worked well enough for me and its now my brother’s favorite movie of the year. I would say it hit its target audience quite successfully.