There are not many childhood-focused franchises that could pride themselves at being considered an integral part in the childhoods of as many people possible in the world. One of those early age brands that would most likely hold that distinction is “Winnie the Pooh”. While originally created by British author A.A. Milne for books he wrote in 1926 and 1928, the character and his friends have enjoyed media immortality of sorts thanks to Disney making film featurettes and TV shows of its stories over the decades. Following a drought of new material, Disney takes Pooh into live-action with the release of “Christopher Robin” this month.
The film, starring Ewan McGregor and featuring the talents of longtime Pooh voice actor Jim Cummings, is unique in that it takes the mythos of the stories and characters past their usual status quo for a story about the dichotomy between childhood memories and that of adulthood. Materially, “Christopher Robin” takes its foundation from the final chapter of the second Pooh book by Milne, “The House at Pooh Corner”. There, Christopher Robin announced his going away to boarding school to his toy and animal friends at the Hundred Acre Wood, and bids a personal farewell to his old friend Pooh.
A strict regimen at boarding school and the untimely death of his father in that period catalyzed the swift maturation of Christopher Robin in the opening credits of the film, which comes with his forgetting the fond memories of his forested playground. The adult joys of marrying and having a child are also ruined by Christopher’s service in World War II, followed by a dreary and demanding managerial job afterwards. The present Christopher Robin (McGregor) is a distant absentee husband and father, who gets further stressed by the possibility of having to lay off employees to cut some company costs.
Into his joyless workaholic life stumbles an old friend whose name he remembers, but not their time together. Somehow, Winnie the Pooh (Cummings) finds himself in London after walking into Christopher Robin’s old tree “house” at the Hundred Acre Wood. He asks Christopher for help because his other friends have disappeared and there is apparently a monstrous “Heffalump” loose and prowling in the trees. Christopher initially wants to simply bring Pooh back to the Wood and return to his current assignment in balancing the company budget but, as things go, plans change and magic happens.
We should also look into the other people in Christopher Robin’s life. There is his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), an architect, whom he met and married before fighting in the War, and who sorely misses the man he was before serving in it. Then there is their daughter Madeline, played to childlike intensity by Bronte Carmichael as a girl who never quite managed to bond with her father due to their first meeting post-war when his dreary personality was solidified. Her efforts to connect to her parent are frustrated by Christopher’s plan to send her to boarding school later on.
There also involves a bit of drama and comedy wherein Christopher, resigned to working on the weekend, has sent off Evelyn and Madeline to spend time at his old country cottage in Sussex, where the tree with the hole that opened to the Hundred Acre Wood lies. In his unexpected trip to bring Pooh back through there, he has to stay out of his family’s sight, with Silly Old Bear Pooh not helping with his antics. Then, when Pooh decides to return to the cottage to help Christopher with something important, he gets Madeline to help him travel to London.
All in all, this movie boasts perhaps one of the best of the most recent cases of live-action actors interacting with CGI characters. And the graphics work on Pooh and his friends from the Wood are astonishing. One could actually take them for real stuffed animals that happen to be “alive”. The supporting cast members are also effective in their respective parts, such as Mark Gatiss playing Christopher’s mean-spirited boss, and the voice talents of Brad Garret as the gloomy donkey Eeyore and Nick Mohammed as the easily-frightened Piglet. Pooh also reprises the voice of the extremely hyperactive Tigger. The only shortcoming must be the underutilization of the other voice actors, including Peter Capaldi and Toby Jones who play other friends of Pooh and Christopher.
Plus points must also be awarded to Disney for their being able to create a great soundtrack in spite of the sudden death of their first-choice composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. His duties were taken up by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion, with contributions from Disney Legend Richard Sherman who composed the original Disney “Winnie the Pooh” theme song, plus three new original numbers for “Christopher Robin”.
“Christopher Robin” is a sobering look at how much growing up and out of childhood can suck, but also affirms that it is never impossible to return one’s mind and heart back to the simple days of playing outside. It is a testament to the versatility of director Marc Forster, whose earlier projects are as varied as “Quantum of Solace”, to “Finding Neverland”, to “World War Z”. Fans of Disney and Winnie the Pooh are almost mandated to go watch it. After all, it is always a sunny day when Christopher Robin comes to play.
Image courtesy of Vanity Fair