What does a film company do when they’re out of ideas? If you’re Disney, you do one of two things: either remake all of your classic films in live-action format, or you explore one of those classics’ backstories. Disney’s first foray into the latter, Saving Mr. Banks, missed the mark completely, turning one of the most beloved family-friendly musicals into a depressing documentary focusing on themes of alcoholism and suicide. While that film left a horrible taste in my mouth, I still found myself intrigued by Christopher Robin, which follows the titular character as he journeys back to the Hundred Acre Wood to save his childhood friends. Fortunately, this film served as a nice palate cleanser which stands tall amongst the ever-growing live-action Disney pantheon.
The story of Winnie the Pooh is a tale as old as time. Christopher Robin, a young British boy, frequently travels to the supposedly imaginary world of the Hundred Acre Wood, where he finds his supposedly imaginary friends. These friends include the titular Winnie the Pooh, a small yellow bear with a red shirt and no pants, who’s headstrong and full of adventure, all while touting a certain sense of childlike innocence (he’s also full of honey; don’t forget all the honey). In this new film, Christopher Robin experiences the ups and downs of growing up, which can be both satisfying and heartbreaking, as his journey finds him kissing the Hundred Acre Wood goodbye for the last time. Or so he thought.
In Christopher Robin, we find that the Hundred Acre Wood and its inhabitants are not so imaginary after all. While preparing for a business trip, Christopher, played by a strangely fitting Ewan McGregor, runs into Pooh in the real world. Pooh bear has come to find Christopher, as all of the Wood’s citizens have gone missing. So begins a hectic journey through London that blends Pooh’s ditzy antics with the hustle and bustle of English society. It’s a weird dynamic we’ve never seen before, as Pooh and his unusual behavior typically fits into the lifestyle of the Hundred Acre Wood. But now, being outside of his habitat and into the real world, we get to see just how well a stuffed animal blends in with a crowd of hardworking humans. Spoilers, he’s quite a bear out of water.
Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of the titular Christopher Robin is nothing short of smile-inducing. The esteemed actor has such a varied repertoire of characters that one may forget he can be sensitive, relatable, and at times downright funny. The film seems to take a lot of inspiration from Finding Neverland, which of course is the story of J.M. Barrie and the events that helped him write Peter Pan. McGregor plays Robin with a kind of exuberance not unlike that of Barrie in the musical adaptation. He constantly straddles a line between devoted businessman and struggling father, and when Pooh is introduced in his adult life, Robin’s day-to-day is flipped on its head due to a new sense of childlike wonder blooming within him. McGregor successfully leads the film with nary a dip in its stride, making the plate-balancing act of life look like a struggle worth fighting for.
Christopher Robin’s family provides an even more unique spin to the classic Pooh tale. Never before have other characters been able to see the Hundred Acre Wood and its inhabitants. Yet in this film, four of the animals make it out of their homeland and into the big city of London. There they meet Madeline and Evelyn Robin, Christopher’s daughter and wife, respectively. Their story follows a parallel plotline to Christopher’s, as they grow more distant from him over the course of the film. The mother/daughter duo find themselves in a predicament when they find out Christopher cannot join them on their family vacation, due to work. From here on out, they start to question his loyalty to their family unit, and Madeline’s lack of a father figure in the house makes her feel alienated and alone.
However, unlike Christopher’s own childhood, Madeline does not know how to use her imagination, as her creativity is stifled by her father’s urging her to excel at schoolwork. Thus, when she finally meets Pooh and the gang, she is taken by surprise and doesn’t quite know how to interact with them. The introduction of Christopher Robin’s daughter makes for a breath of fresh air in the world of Winnie the Pooh. Watching her explore and play with the Hundred Acre Wood crew was akin to Christopher’s childhood days in the old movies and TV shows. This could kick-start a brand new Pooh franchise with a female protagonist, and we all know how keen Disney is on adding those to established properties. Madeline could turn the Pooh train in an entirely new direction, and thanks to Christopher Robin, I am curious to see where that train could go.
As for the Hundred Acre Wood characters themselves, I couldn’t be happier with the product we were given. Perhaps the most enticing part of this whole film was the unique art style given to this classic cast. Every animal from the Wood looks as though they’ve been overplayed with, and tossed to the side for far too long. Aside from Rabbit and Owl, who are actual (computer-generated) animals, the rest of the gang consists of lifelike plushies, and I must say, the effects are so realistic it would be creepy if it weren’t so damn adorable. Eeyore was a standout favorite, as he was frequently picked up by humans, which would not only make his diminutive size a lot more noticeable (and laughable), but it would allow his little feet and floppy ears to dangle, and it brought an extra layer of “aww” to the stuffed animals we all know and love.
Winnie the Pooh’s effects took me the most by surprise. Being the leader of the group, and quite obviously Christopher Robin’s favorite, Pooh looks the most used and downtrodden, albeit in a good way. His fur is all matted down, he’s bumbly, and his legs move with a stiffness that only an old doll could have. Above all this, though, his realism is unmatched by most CG animals of movie fame. Christopher Robin proved that a live-action Toy Story film could work without a hitch. Pooh’s interactions with the world around him were realistic and natural. Even his conversations with humans made it look like he was a real person on set with them, and Jim Cummings’s portrayal of the iconic bear is, as always, a dopey delight. I was just absolutely blown away by the fluidity of these creatures in the real world. Nothing looked unbelievable; not in a bad way, at least. Winnie the Pooh puts Paddington to shame.
Perhaps the only source of disappointment in Christopher Robin came from the overall color palette. As this film takes place in post-WWII England, the scenery is extremely dark and dreary. Skies are in a constant state of overcast, and a haziness of each environment never goes away, not even in the Hundred Acre Wood…where it’s even foggier. Color is fairly important in the world of Winnie the Pooh, as everyone knows Pooh is a yellow bear with a red shirt, Tigger is bright orange with black stripes, and Eeyore is gray, like his soul. But in Christopher Robin, the animals’ colors are more subtle, which happens to match the dingy aesthetic the film was going for, although it is a bit displeasing to the eye. I just would’ve preferred a bit more light and a splash of color to the Hundred Acre Wood, at least, as a sign of hope and fun. Fortunately, the dismal scenery doesn’t take viewers out of the film too much.
One of the most captivating parts of Christopher Robin was the brand new social commentary on children’s psyches. Winnie the Pooh is one of Disney’s oldest and most beloved properties, with characters that people have loved for decades. However, I have yet to see it take the audience a little deeper and explore just how much the Hundred Acre Wood mirrors reality. In Christopher Robin, however, there’s no question that each animal represents a little piece of Christopher’s – or really any child’s – mind, reminiscent of Pixar’s film Inside Out. Eeyore represents depression, Piglet represents anxiety, Tigger is joy, Rabbit is OCD, and so on. Even the Heffalumps and Woozles represent adults with their ties and business suits. The Hundred Acre Wood is an escape from the harshness of reality, and through the years viewers have always seen it as a figment of Christopher Robin’s imagination. Fortunately this film puts a new spin on that belief, and through the eyes of a stuffed bear it shows just how stressful life can when you’re tossed right into it unexpectedly.
Since it’s obvious that the Hundred Acre Wood’s inhabitants are made to serve as varied aspects of a child’s mind, ultimately Winnie the Pooh represents the aforementioned childlike wonder in all of us. Even when the rest of the group goes missing, and all seems lost, Winnie the Pooh marches on. Pooh never gives up on his friends, even if it has been 92 years since his first adventure. Thankfully, he didn’t give up on Christopher Robin, and his latest journey made for a tale that is sure to be an instant classic. I found myself leaving the theater still chuckling over certain scenes, such as Pooh falling down a flight of stairs (which made my sister burst out of her seat laughing). I’ll even admit I cried during a certain moment shared by Christopher and Pooh near the film’s finale. Full to the brim with excitement, laughter, and a whole lot of heart, Christopher Robin is one of Disney’s best movies of recent memory.
It’s been a couple weeks since I saw the film and I truly think about it daily. I reflect on its lighthearted nature and its lack of any unexpected darkness. There is a conflict, yes, but it’s more subtle than some may realize. This film is so great for families because through a child’s eyes, it’s a nonstop silly romp about a tubby bear and his friends. But for adults who understand the struggles of real life, it unfolds into a bigger picture. Christopher Robin’s themes focus on the struggle to balance work, family, and a personal life, and unlike some films – Mary Poppins comes to mind – the protagonist isn’t forced to sacrifice one facet of life for another. Thanks to Pooh and his friends, Christopher Robin is able to find a stable ground between creativity and seriousness. The film’s overarching lesson that “doing nothing often leads to the very best something” helps viewers see that it’s okay to step back and reassess the past, to better shape the future. Disney certainly took this lesson to heart with their decision to produce Christopher Robin; in this case, doing nothing led to sheer brilliance.