When you grow up your heart dies. Or so members of The Breakfast Club would have us believe. And Disney appear to be subscribing to Allison Reynolds’ philosophy. Because A.A. Milne’s sweet little storybook boy has grown up to be a heartless, workaholic, dick.
Christopher Robin put away childish things long ago. As we turned the final pages of The House at Pooh Corner, Milne’s words and E.H. Shepard’s illustrations sketched a poignant farewell between that little boy and his toys. Director Marc Forster cleverly elaborates on that theme before and through the opening credits as Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is assailed by loneliness, fear and loss.
Shadows of his playful soul linger long enough for Christopher Robin to find a lifelong dance partner and wife in Evelyn (an inexcusably underused Hayley Atwell). Yet Christopher finds few reasons to dance when he returns from war. In his absence Evelyn has delivered and raised their small daughter and built them a home, alone. Christopher falls into the role of provider and patriarch, substituting imagination for work ethic. Expecting the same of his child.
If ever a man were crying out for a talking toy intervention, it would be Christopher Robin. And mercifully the magical realism pixies are always listening. They send a friend-questing Pooh Bear tumbling through the door in the hollow tree and upend him into post-war London with a rumbly tum and four very sticky paws. Christopher Robin’s stiff upper lip, tidy home and urgent work assignment cannot withstand the force of his will.
Exasperated, Christopher realises the only answer is to return with Pooh to The Hundred Acre Wood and reunite him with his chums. Ironically passing within feet of his family and the weekend cottage break he had rejected. His relationships is in tatters, his daughter Madeline days from boarding away, Christopher does not have the patience to indulge a stuffed toy. He bids Pooh a firm farewell and that’s the end of that.
In these establishing scenes Forster and his DP Matthias Koenigswieser evoke a powerful sense of a man out of his depth in his own life. Keeping the perspective low so that at times Christopher’s very life towers over him. We see the tableau of war, the scale of his workplace, the grind of each new day from this childlike POV. Nothing changes in his joyless world until Christopher has a change of heart and steps out of it.
Of course Christopher Robin cannot let Winnie-the-Pooh pass through the door alone. He may no longer believe in heffalumps and woozles but for old time’s sake he is prepared to sacrifice a few more minutes of his time. Sadly a few minutes are as long as his indulgence lasts, before long Christopher is scolding poor Pooh as severely as he dresses down his daughter. The baffled bear cannot bear the conflict and flees into the fog.
If it were possible to pitch (and find a market for) this as a film for the children we used to be, rather than as a children’s film, Disney would be on to a winner. Heavily relying on its audience to fill in the blanks of an emotionally blank Christopher’s character, the first third of the movie is pretty heavy going. It doesn’t pull punches when highlighting parenting faults and foibles, which is unexpectedly bold, borderline foolhardy, for a summer holiday release.
It is in the moments when magical realism meets marvellous melancholy that Christopher Robin (man and film) comes alive. And no one does melancholy like Eeyore. Acting as a sort of dispirited spirit guide, the battered old donkey reluctantly returns Christopher to the right path. Brad Garrett’s vocal performance, twinned with the gorgeous rendering of his careworn form, ensuring that every scene in which Eeyore appears is a joy.
Jim Cummings voices Winnie the Pooh and Tigger and brings his own magic to the mix. The visuals are a treat too. Gone is the enforced cheeriness of the animated Pooh franchise colour palette. Replaced by the veracity of faded, bobbling fur and threadbare faces. Winnie-the-Pooh watching the door in the hollow tree year upon year for his friend’s return inspires the same throat straining reaction as Jurassic Bark: the episode of Futurama we will never watch again.
Christopher Robin is a curious film. It’s dark, uncompromisingly English in its emotional restraint and yet Disney-improbable in its life lessons. Few men could have afforded to simply walk away from a job at such a time. Few families could survive such an impulse. Or live on imaginary tea parties and honey. But oh how we want them to do so anyway! Leave the children at home for this one and treat yourself to a trip back in time. Especially if you have been a woozle lately. Just don’t forget your tissues…
Christopher Robin opens on 17th August