“Doing nothing leads to the very best of something.” Such is the oft-repeated theme of Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin, a sequel of sorts to A.A. Milne’s famous short stories about Winnie the Pooh. In the film, a grown-up Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has a high-stress job in post-World War II London that takes him away from his family. Instead of embracing his childhood credo of “nothing,” Christopher now says that “dreams don’t come for free,” and he has a whole lot of “something” to get done.
Christopher Robin, which hits its notes rather stridently for a film about the search for lost innocence, suggests an unusual and quirky addition in the new Disney wheelhouse of the studio remaking and sequelizing its classic properties. Essentially taking its outline from 1991’s Hook, Steven Spielberg’s fantasy of a grown-up Peter Pan, Forster’s film seamlessly inserts Milne’s anthropomorphized creatures—compassionate Piglet (Nick Mohammed), confident Tigger (Jim Cummings), pedantic Owl (Toby Jones), control-freak Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), dour Eeyore (Brad Garrett)—into a live-action narrative, with Matthias Koenigswieser’s color palette visualizing pastoral innocence with a honeyed glow that contrasts with adulthood’s gray desaturation.
Christopher’s employment at a luggage company is a clever nod to how the accrual of experience means carrying more emotional baggage. Through education, marriage, fatherhood, and war, the Christopher Robin that readers and viewers grew up with has been expunged. Indeed, the carefree child of our storybook memory is replaced by a slouching and grimacing man tasked by his boss, Giles Winslow (Mark Gattis), to meet company budget demands by making workforce cuts. Meanwhile, Christopher neglects his daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), who wants to spend some quality time with her dad in the family’s country cottage. His wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), tells Christopher that these years of parenting an adolescent are few and precious, and that the toll of such devotion to a job may make him crack. Still, he presses on, sending his family to the country without him.
Then the film cuts to Pooh (Cummings) waking from his slumber, far away in the Hundred Acre Wood, and in the process Christopher’s capacity for imagination is effectively roused from imposed hibernation. Pooh, who represents the buoyant spirit of Christopher’s youth, surprises the film’s hero by greeting him on a park bench, and when Christopher investigates the tree from which Pooh emerged, the hole is gone. Pooh, whose innocent disposition is to accept all things as they come, says that the hole was there when it needed to be, and that’s all they need to know. It’s as if the film were telling us not to pay too much attention to the implausibilities of the proceedings (stuffed animals causing commotion around an otherwise realistic presentation of postwar London) and just relax in accordance with Pooh.
Before long, Christopher is back in the Hundred Acre Wood with his old friends, “at play” for the first time in decades, with the hope of recapturing lost innocence and becoming closer to Madeline, who eventually comes to meet Pooh and company. But Christopher Robin never feels playful so much as rueful. Unlike the red balloon that Pooh follows through much of the running time (a nod to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic short The Red Balloon), the film lacks lightness. The choreography between animated fantasy and live-action reality sorely wants for a natural sense of rhythm.
The preponderance of slapstick humor—especially when a bouncing Tigger is involved—is to be expected, but under Forster’s direction, the havoc is joylessly sewn together. It all feels less like play than the unneeded chaos that Disney’s mandated for its presumed attention-deficient audience. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Christopher Robin will be reconciled with Pooh and innocence, but this film, on the other hand, betrays its theme in being handled with a sense of purposefully checking off too many studio boxes.