Christopher Robin: Don’t Bother, by David Bax
Last year saw the release of Goodbye Christopher Robin, which dramatized the relationship between Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne and his son, on whom he based his most famous human character. Now we get a new movie about that character, who shares a name with his real life counterpart, leaving behind the Hundred Acre Wood and joining the human world. It’s a bit confusing, especially since neither film feels like it’s rooted in any recognizable version of our reality. The best you can say about Christopher Robin, Marc Forster’s soggy new take on Milne’s creations, is that it’s better than last year’s Christopher Robin movie. But that’s not saying much.
Christopher Robin‘s top-billed screenwriter is celebrated New York indie whiz kid Alex Ross Perry, which raises more questions than it answers. He’s trafficked in homage before but with the lazy convolutions and tropes like the long-suffering wife (Hayley Atwell) on display here, it’s hard to imagine to what cinematic touchstones he was hoping to pay tribute.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. There’s a clear, if regrettable, antecedent to Christopher Robin. Christopher (Ewan McGregor), the grown-up version of a famous British character from children’s literature, is suddenly pulled back into the fantasy world from which we know him but which he has long abandoned for sad, mean, quotidian pursuits. Yes, Christopher Robin has the same plot as Steven Spielberg’s Hook. As garish and cynical an exercise as that movie is, though, it at least got the basic mechanics right. Forster and the team of screenwriters err grievously by failing to clearly delineate the two realms, removing the weight from Christopher’s new life and the wonder from his old one while simultaneously denying us the necessary sting of his departure.
On the other hand, Christopher Robin has a leg up on Hook in its beloved roster of talking animal characters, who are as delightful here as ever, charmingly obstinate in the face of time. This is especially true of Pooh himself (voiced as usual by Jim Cummings) whose utter lack of guile is endearing to the point of heartbreak and whose inability to be in a hurry is not frustrating but hilarious; like, for instance, when he is politely insistent on wanting a balloon even while Christopher is rushing to catch a train. When the other core animals—Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett) and Tigger (also Cummings)—join Pooh and Christopher in post-war London, the movie finally takes flight. In this iteration, these characters are visualized in the form of photorealistic stuffed animals so, when they team up with Christopher’s daughter (Bronte Carmichael) for a mad dash through the city via train, taxi, delivery truck and, for a time, a wildly caroming suitcase, Forster is able to briefly achieve some of the fleet-footed exuberance of the Toy Story movies.
Most of the time, though, Forster fumbles what ought to be the humorous elements. He has a tendency to focus too intently on faces and movements to let comedy breathe. The drab color palette ought to be an ironic counterpoint to the whimsy on hand but Forster doesn’t seem to get the joke. It’s too bad he couldn’t continue the bright, almost surrealist look of his most recent feature (and previous collaboration with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser), All I See Is You, a career best for the director so far. Instead, he insists on close-ups until they become oppressive; it’s as if he’s screaming at the viewer to pay attention but not offering anything to pay attention to.
Any cursory scrutiny of the movie will reveal nothing but surface. There’s no emotion or moral that Perry and his fellow screenwriters Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder won’t literalize. “I’m not a child anymore,” Christopher insists, “I’m an adult with adult responsibilities,” to which Pooh replies, “You’re Christopher Robin,” in an exchange that essentially doubles as a plot summary, like it was filmed specifically for the trailer and then someone accidentally left it in. Such on-the-nose insights are continuous; the only thing more ham-fisted than the character development is the character growth, lurching ahead with each clearly marked and learned lesson like the lamest videogame ever. Finally, Christopher Robin’s attempt to bring Milne’s classic stories into the adult world collapses in a resolution that even a child would recognize as insultingly simplistic.