Not so long ago we were treated to “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” the story of how the enormous success of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books ultimately led to estrangement from his son, on whom the character of Robin was based, because of the use to which the boy was put as a sort of marketing device. Now it’s “hello, again!” in the form of a Disney fantasy in which an older, unhappy Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is called back to the woods by his childhood friends, who rejuvenate his life by convincing him to give up his workaholic ways and spend more time with his wife and daughter. In a way it’s the circle of life applied to Winnie-the-Pooh, see?
Well, that’s what “Christopher Robin” is meant to be—encouragement to us all to recapture the childlike wonder and joy we lose in adulthood. Unfortunately, the movie, directed by Marc Forster with a heavy hand even when it’s trying desperately to be effervescent, is far less magical than it obviously wants to be. The device, employed throughout, of book pages flipping from episode to episode is symptomatic not only of the movie’s old-fashioned tone (reflected in the stuffed-animal style of animation as well) but of its stuffiness—it hearkens back to those calcified old MGM adaptations of literary classics.
The opening segment of the script concocted by Alex Ross Perry and Allison Schroeder shows young Christopher (Orton O’Brien) being given a going-away party by his animal pals Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, channeling Sterling Holloway from the Disney animated flicks), Tigger (Cummings again, this time doing his Paul Winchell), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Piglet (Nick Mohammed) , Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okenedo) and Roo (Sara Sheen)—before heading off to boarding school and the “real world.”
The plot then shifts to London, where after wartime service Christopher (McGregor) works as head of the efficiency department in a luggage company. Since people are taking fewer holidays and buying fewer suitcases as a result of the tightened economy, he’s ordered by Giles (Mark Gatiss), his prissy loafer of a boss who also happens to be the owner’s son, to cut costs dramatically, something that will probably entail layoffs or firings.
Gloomy over the prospect of working out the unhappy details of the shakeup, Christopher must cancel going on a planned weekend outing to the cottage outside Hundred Acre Wood with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), whom he is sending to the same dreary school he attended. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be alone after they leave.
That’s because back in the wood, Pooh has woken to find all his friends vanished, and seeking help from Christopher, he passes via the tree through which the boy always came to the forest and finds himself magically transported to London, where he conveniently bumps into the downcast Robin. After some misadventures in the family home, Christopher decides he must take Pooh back to the woods and help him find the other animals.
They succeed, in spite of the fact that the others briefly mistake Robin for the heffalump they were all hiding from, and Christopher bids them farewell and returns to London. The problem is that Tigger has removed all the important papers containing the downsizing plans from Robin’s briefcase and replaced them with forest mementos, so they decide to go to London to return the documents. Along the way, of course, they join forces with Madeline, who wants nothing more than to get away from the drudgery of study Christopher insists upon, help the critters complete their mission, and save her father’s job in the process. Eventually Christopher and Evelyn will get swept up in the expedition as well.
This part of the picture, with its frenzied race through the London streets and breathless culmination in the boardroom of the luggage company, is designed to end matters on a high note. Unfortunately it’s choreographed messily, and the solution to the cost-saving problem that Christopher finally comes up with is so absurdly populist that it would have made Frank Capra blush.
There are parts of “Christopher Robin” that will elicit some smiles, especially among those brought up on Milne’s stories and E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of them, or the earlier Disney animated films. Pooh’s slow, befuddled observations are amusing enough, and Cummings’ delivery of them (and of Tigger’s more raucous exclamations) is top-notch, even if it’s Garrett’s Eeyore, with his barrage of lamentations, who really steals the show. There are a few throwaway gags—like reaction shots of people when they think they see Pooh move and talk—that work, too.
Overall, though, much of the movie feels flat, especially when compared to the two completely charming recent “Paddington” films; even “Peter Rabbit” had more verve than this, though it admittedly took some wayward turns. And especially in the purely “human” parts of the picture, Forster adopts a pace that’s uncomfortably stiff in an effort to achieve a “period” flavor. He also overplays the eccentricity card. He encourages Gatiss to act the smirking boss so broadly that the guy degenerates into a crude cartoon, and there’s a particularly misguided running gag early on involving a neighbor who wants to engage Robin in a game of gin rummy. There the mood slips from eccentricity to genuine creepiness.
McGregor does all he can to keep things afloat; it’s never easy for an actor to play against CGI, although he’s had plenty of experience from his “Star Wars” days, but even more so to convince as a Capra-esque protagonist, and he pulls that task off as well as anyone could. (His turn in “Miss Potter,” yet another of these films with links to British children’s literature, was nonetheless better because it was less forced.) Atwell and Carmichael get by as Robin’s ever-patient wife and daughter. But more certainly could have been done with the bevy of fine character actors assigned to play the concerned members of Robin’s staff. They’re given virtually nothing to do but sneak around anxiously and press their ears to closed doors to hear snatches of conversation. Certainly they’re never seen doing anything resembling work; perhaps they all do deserve to be sacked.
Cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser contributes burnished widescreen images in subdued colors, although his shooting of the more action-oriented episodes is messy (a quality accentuated by Matt Chessé’s sometimes flaccid editing). And the score by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion exaggerates the wistfulness of it all.
“Christopher Robin” isn’t an insult to Milne’s beloved creation, but it’s not a particularly noteworthy addendum to it either.