Perhaps hoping to replicate the success of Paul King’s Paddington franchise, Disney’s latest Winnie-the-Pooh film is a real world affair. Forget escapism then and embrace the misery of growing up. Who better to save Christopher Robin from his lost innocent in adulthood that a gravely voiced bear, anxious pig and depressed donkey. What to do, what to do, what to do?
Marc Forster is the director who previously brought sparkle to Finding Neverland but there’s precious little of that to be found in his sourly gloomy hundred acre wood. Whilst Christopher has grown into the visage of Mr Banks – complete with miserable job and strained relationship with his family – a metaphorical mist and drooped on both his old forrest playground and the childhood it represents. Oh bother, indeed.
That’s not to say charm cannot be found in Christopher Robin. Fuzzy ‘live-action’ realisations of Winnie-the-Pooh, Eyeore, Piglet and Tigger (too) summon easy smiles and, sure enough, the witticist legacy of A. A. Milne’s original stories lives on in delightful dialogic nonsense from Pooh: ‘People say nothing is impossible but I do nothing every day’. At times, this is a very funny film.
The problem lies in the film’s insatiably melancholic tone. After a bittersweet but touching opening – a goodbye tea party for Christopher, about to be shipped off to boarding school – Foster hands the reins to Eeyore and a bleak hour of troubles. Old Christopher, played by a boyish yet wrinkled Ewan McGregor, works for a luggage manufacturing company that has hit the doldrums. When boss Giles (Mark Gatiss) instructs him to make cuts, Christopher is forced to cancel plans to join his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) on a holiday in the countryside. It’s a sacrifice that doesn’t go down well.
But then Christopher knocks over a jar of honey, spilling sticky gloop all over an old drawing of his old animal friends and Forster jumps us to a dreaming bear with a rumbling tummy. So in steps Pooh, who needs his old friend’s help because he’s lost all of his friends. Voiced by Disney veteran Jim Cummings – who also provides the splendidiferous, bouncy trouncy tones of Tigger – Pooh is the heart of the film and, largely, its saviour. If the cynical Christopher Robin is hard to root for, his bear – here, oddly, alive rather than a toy – is the sagely brainless protagonist that melts and warms the heart with equal measure. Perhaps his eyes are a little too dead – which, combined with bizarrely inappropriate handheld camera work, occasionally gives the film the look of a horror – but his whole is as affecting as one could hope.
Outwit the antics of that silly old bear, Forster’s film lacks the winning emotional resonance of Paddington and hasn’t even that film’s joyful palette. Aiming for a similar visual tone to Simon Curtis superior Goodbye Christopher Robin, Matthias Koenigswieser’s cinematographic landscape is doused in various shades of brown but comes across more Brontë than Milne. The score, by Geoff Zanelli and Lady Bird’s Jon Brion, is similarly underwhelming, whilst a round table script plays like nostalgia porn, dishing out the best of Pooh’s back catalogue, from Winnie’s morning stretch routine to a forced-in rendition of ‘the wonderful thing about tiggers’. It’s sweetness and light but predictable.
Not a single shot, concept or line in Christopher Robin feels originally conceived. City suppression is epitomised in a, visually typical, birds-eye shot of travelling umbrellas whilst Pooh’s nuisance is established by his accidental destruction of the family kitchen. The paper-thin arc goes exactly where you expect it too and even McGregor’s stifled RP accent seems to be on loan from another film.
Attempts at subtlety and subtext – note how alike the staff at Winslow’s are to the folk of the hundred acre wood and the symbolic significance of the empty promises of a holiday that Christopher works with alongside the story of treasure chests that his daughter reads – are admirable but underdeveloped. A little like the film itself.