Friday, May 24, 2024

‘Christopher Robin’ Doesn’t Understand Pooh

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Christopher Robin has the melancholic beauty of the postcards you find in gift shops. It looks nice and makes you go “aww” but then you forget about it and move on. Much like Cars 3, Disney once again tells the story of a middle-aged man dealing with a midlife crisis—to children.

Christopher Robin opens up promising enough. Marc Forster has worked with his cameraman, Matthias Koenigswieser, to create a story dripping with sepia-toned nostalgia. We see glimpses of Christopher Robin’s (Orton O’Brien) childhood with Pooh and the other creatures from the Hundred Acre Wood. Forster and Koenigswieser play with time. They give us snapshot glimpses of Christopher’s childhood. We see frames dissolve into drawings in a children’s book. But they mistake having a look for having a tone.

Slowly we see Christopher Robin the boy become Christopher Robin the man (Ewan McGregor). Christopher Robin meets Evelyn (Hayley Atwell). They get married. Christopher Robin goes to war leaving behind a pregnant wife, only to return home to a daughter he’s never met. By itself, this alone would make for an interesting story to explore, with or without Tigger (Jim Cummings).

Forster and his cadre of writers, of which there are five, decide to focus on Christopher Robin the efficiency expert at Winslow Luggage. I’ve seen loads of people online bring up Spielberg’s Hook just from the trailers alone. But while Spielberg made Peter Pan an accountant, we never had to sit through scenes with Peter at the office.

Forster wants to weave a tale of magic and wonder for the kids, while giving the adults a wistful reminder of their youth. He achieves neither. Pooh (Jim Cummings) is fond of saying “Nothing comes from nothing.” A clever little line. Or would be if it weren’t repeated to death. Repetition can either enhance a line or beat it to the ground. All meaning and context fleeing for the Hundred Acre Wood.

We spend the first half of the movie watching Christopher Robin grow old and see how miserable his life has become. The middle portion is only marginally better. Pooh shows up nearby Christopher Robin’s house. Christopher Robin, in order to get any work done, must take Pooh back to the Hundred Acre Wood. The third act is, of course, a race to the board meeting to save Christopher Robin’s job, which he hates.

The adults won’t be bored senseless but I’m not so sure about the children. Don’t get me wrong, there will be stretches where they will surely be enraptured. For all it’s missteps Christopher Robin does nail the voices of Pooh and his friends. Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), Roo (Sara Sheen), and Owl (Toby Jones) are all perfectly cast. Except Forster doesn’t seem to know what to do with all these characters.

When Pooh and friends leave the Hundred Acre Wood to go help Christopher Robin, only Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger go. All well and good, except part of the genius of Winnie the Pooh is how each character is to some extent a manifestation of a child’s psyche or emotive state. To only use half the characters for most of the story seems a great disservice to the others.

Perhaps, giving Forster some credit, this is his point. After all, Christopher Robin is about discovering one’s inner child. Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore are the purest in their representations of childhood. Even though it still feels as if Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are barely even thought of.

When Christopher Robin comes back to the Hundred Acre Wood he can’t find Pooh. But he does stumble onto Eeyore, followed by Piglet. But then the script has him stumble onto the rest of the animals all at once. I return to the lack of tone. Sometimes Christopher Robin feels measured as if it’s building to something. But almost always it abandons all it’s hard work just to jump into a loud wacky moment.

Scenes where Christopher Robin trying to convince Eeyore and Piglet he’s not a Heffalump are beautiful and subtle. They hint at a better more complex movie underneath. The idea is of course discarded for a wacky over the top quick solution. “If you really were Christopher Robin, you would defeat the Heffalump.”

The other animals hide in a log. Christopher Robin pretends to fight a Heffalump to assuage his friends’ fears. It’s a wonderful idea but it’s too hastily done and rushed.

Pooh and his friends look alive and as if they literally sprung from a child’s imagination. But, and here’s where I am reminded I am an adult, Forster and his writers have made the odd decision that Pooh and his friends can be seen and heard by everyone. So when Christopher Robin leaves, he’s not leaving his imaginary friends, he’s leaving his actual friends. Even more confusing is Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo all look like stuffed toys come to life. Rabbit and Owl seem to be real animals.

I know, I know, this is a kids movie. Christopher Robin is at its best when it sticks to being a Winnie the Pooh movie. A.A. Milne’s dialogue is still as potent and poetic as ever. The warm and clever words of Pooh and his friends expose the crassness of the rest of the script. The simple wit and charm of the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood are cheapened. The lines are repeated by those in the real world, like an echo. As if the kids are too stupid to have understood them the first time.

Hayley Atwell continues to be underused, misused, underwritten, and sidelined for no good reason whatsoever. We are firmly in the 21st century. It’s depressing that so many men in Hollywood still have no clue what to do with a character who happens to be a woman. Don’t even get me started on Christopher Robin’s daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). But I guess of the, again five writers, one who was a woman, it was too much to hope for.

It would have made more sense for either Atwell’s Evelyn or Carmichael’s Madeline to be the main character. Set in post-war London, it could have explored Evelyn’s broken dreams or Madeline’s strict, almost joyless father. In the beginning, we see Evelyn was an architect during the war. Afterward, though she was, like most women, told to go back to the kitchen. Madeline seems less like a normal little girl and much like her father, eager to explore and with an imagination positively bursting at the seams.

Throughout all of Christopher Robin, the message is never grow up. Never stop playing. Never lose your toys. I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe the message wouldn’t have rung so hollow if it didn’t come from Disney, a studio that cranks out Star Wars and Marvel movies—and their toys.

Christopher Robin is dull, dull, dull. Charming for bits, but only the bits involving words and characters not created by the army of writers hired by Disney. Slick and polished Forster always seems rushed. The emotion is never allowed to build. Instead, in the end, I was left with a feeling of morose apathy.

The magic of the stories of the Hundred Acre Wood is how simple and direct they are. Christopher Robin mistakes this directness for eschewing complexities and boiling everything down to boilerplate Pooh-isms. Or believing that just repeating the lines in awe makes them more impressive. Nothing comes from nothing may be true. But Christopher Robin also shows us that sometimes nothing is preferable to something.

Image Courtesy of Disney

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