It’s befitting that the house-produced Walt Disney hagiography that was released several years back was called Saving Mr. Banks, as the title of that film and its ultimate meaning — that Disney, along with P. L. Travers discovered the secret of making Mary Poppins work on the big screen was that it was about the fight for the Banks’ family patriarch’s very soul — have sort of become a company motto. It stands right behind “fire anybody who makes an off-color joke about our characters or before they worked here” and “in Walt we trust, all others pay cash,” and, oddly enough, its led to a mini-genre that’s refreshed every few years to remind people to love their children or to find the child inside them once again.
This is an entirely different goal than, say, producing nostalgia-bait for nostalgia sake, and at least at some point asks the audience a rough question: Do you see any of yourself in this film, and would you like to change it? The advice prevented is rarely satisfying, but I’ve first-hand the power that a question like this, posed correctly and artfully, can have on a person. The latest manifestation of that credo, Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin, doesn’t stray too far away from the outline that its in-genre and studio-specific forbearers established, but it has enough simple pleasures in within its 107 minutes to keep one engaged, even if it might put the children in the audience to sleep.
So, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor at his second-most Alec Guinness), child friend of Winnie-the-Pooh (Jim Cummings) and the rest of the Hundred Acre Woods gang, has grown up and grown grumpy. To Forster and his screenwriters’ credit (those writers being indie darling Alex Ross Perry, Spotlight director Tom McCarthy and Hidden Figures co-writer Alison Schroeder, a modern-day brain trust if there ever was one), we have a bit more going on here than in Spielberg’s Hook, as we get to see Robin’s lengthy descent into grump-dom thanks to the oppressive environment of the boarding school he’s sent to and, you know, World War II. The former works well-enough, but the latter grounds the story just a bit too much in reality — after all, I really don’t want to think about the possibility that a beloved childhood character was anywhere close to the horrors humanity inflicted on itself then — but eventually Robin meets and marries a girl (Hayley Atwell, given about as much characterization as I’m about to give her here) and has a daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), and settles down into a comfortable but taxing job managing a luggage company for his disingenuous shithead of a boss (Mark Gatiss).
Years later, his marriage frays under the pressure, and Robin is absent-mindedly sentencing his daughter to a similar fate of unimaginative boredom by sending her to boarding school (to be frank, Madeline is often responsible for the few moments where we really pity Robin, who can’t even imagine her father as a child). He’s forced by his boss to stay at home and work while his family goes to Robin’s childhood cottage, and the universe realizes it needs to give him a swift kick in the pants in order to prevent him from wrecking lives Enter Pooh, who is brought to London from the Hundred Acre Wood by some magic after discovering that all his friends are missing. The bear eventually meets up with Robin in a park near his old friend’s house and, once Christopher Robin realizes he isn’t cracking up, embark on a journey to reunite Pooh with his pals and restore Robin’s sense of play and love, when he’s not busy treating the bear — literally the most magically realized he’s been since A. A. Milne first drew the character or since Disney animated him for the first time — with disdain and disregard. Somehow, a small amount of magic remains even when the film is at a sepia-toned melancholy standstill, and it lives on that thin vein of wonder.
Forster, a director I’ve never particularly liked (and some of his worst traits as a filmmaker are present here in his shot selection and editing), has always had a soft spot for schmaltz within him (one only need to watch Finding Neverland or The Kite Runner to be reminded of that), but this is probably his best work within that particular segment of his filmography. Why? Because of how perfectly realized the Hundred Acre Wood and its inhabitants are. Most of the critters, including Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger are portrayed as stuffed animals brought to life, in an engaging and never-once-creepy manner occasionally reminiscent of the stop-motion work of Jan Svankmajor, which is to say that the gang has a very tactile feeling about them. They emote well, though their expressions don’t change too much, and they’re fully believable as a child’s playthings brought to life by the power of belief and love.
Only two members of the gang, Rabbit and Owl, are actual woodland creatures, and though that’s closer to Milne’s realization of the characters, they’re a bit distractingly different than the rest of the group (though they’re swell in their own right). Most importantly, the voices are cast very well — it will never not tug on my heartstrings to hear Jim Cummings’ calm and soft speaking voice emerge from Pooh Bear — and amongst the standouts is Eeyore, portrayed by Brad Garrett (not Tom Skerritt). His quips are amongst the film’s best lines, and are modern enough to entertain without ever fully lapsing into an irony that would strip the film of its future-proofing. It’ll never replace the simple beauty and endless pleasures of The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, but one could see how this approach could stand alongside that masterwork if helmed by someone else.
But then again, the gang isn’t here to have their own adventures, they’re here to save Christopher Robin from himself. And there lies the problem with producing entertainment for the Mr. Bankses of the world: the very films that are made for them often are guilty of the main sin that they’re holding their protagonists accountable for, in that they forget that their children exist, and hold them in lesser priority than the concerns of the adult world. For Christopher Robin, it’s work and responsibilities, for Christopher Robin, it’s that seeing McGregor transition from ignorant dad to loving father just isn’t as compelling as watching Pooh and his friends go about their business. And, wouldn’t you know it, when the film really begins to lean into the Hundred Acre Wood’s particular brand of silly whimsy, Forster and company really introduce Robin’s daughter as a co-protagonist, for whom our characters can go on a death-defying adventure with on the streets of London. But that just came a little too late in the film for me, sadly, though I assume others will find this just a tad more potent than I did.
I’ve always felt that the most moving films to pose the same questions that Christopher Robin does often are about children, rather than their parents, and I think Mary Poppins understood that as well. Compared to that masterwork, this is more Hook than anything else, thanks to Forster’s heavy hand, but it’s charming enough as is.