If absence makes the heart grow fonder, the corollary must be that abundance creates antipathy — which is exactly what happens with the characters in Christopher Robin, Disney’s latest cash-in on characters that have served the company well for over half a century. Lushly made in a British tradition-of-quality way that’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, this is a honey-sweet but increasingly aggravating tale of how A.A. Milne’s storybook animals come to make the title character value his own neglected human family. Adults possessing even a small trace of the curmudgeon in them will risk a potentially serious Pooh overdose from excessive exposure.
For director Marc Forster, this represents something of a companion piece to his 2004 Finding Neverland, which also dealt with the intersection of real life and the imagination of a celebrated British author. That success was a far more detailed and involving work with a grand cast, whereas here the greatest amount of time is spent enduring the increasingly exasperating meanderings of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. The film proves that the author was wise in confining his characters to unconnected short stories rather than to full-length works.
The story begins with a goodbye, as young Christopher announces to his animal playmates that, as his childhood is drawing to a close, “I’m not going to do nothing anymore.” No Peter Pan syndrome for him, as he intends to grow up. It’s sad but c’est la vie, time for boarding school.
As the credits roll by, so does World War II, which Christopher (Ewan McGregor) survives to join a London luggage company as efficiency manager. He also has a wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and a daughter, Madeline (9-year-old Bronte Carmichael), but is not sufficiently efficient to find any time to spend with them. “Nothing comes from nothing!” Christopher ironically insists, as he advises his ever-disappointed family that, due to the demands of work, he’ll have to bow out of a much-anticipated weekend at their country cottage in Sussex, also the vicinity of Hundred Acre Wood.
Evelyn would not be blamed for imagining there might be another woman in the picture but, no, it’s just a tubby little bear. Pooh happens to roll out of his tree house on this particular morning to find himself in the park across from Christopher’s London flat, which in short order he makes a royal mess of upon the offer of some honey.
Christopher, despite having so much to do — he’s fretting over the disagreeable task of deciding which workers to let go in a twenty percent staff cutback — has little choice but to journey to Sussex after all in order to take his bear friend home. Once there, of course, he reunites with the rest of the gang with whom he spent his childhood — Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo and Owl (some of Milne’s names were more imaginative than others) — and inevitably gets sucked back into their mishaps and misadventures.
The design of the narrative credited to a trio of writers — indie stalwart Alex Ross Perry on his first major studio assignment, Spotlight auteur Tom McCarthy and Hidden Figures co-author Allison Schroeder — is clear and plausible, if predictable in a very Disney way: Rediscovering his childhood roots and friendships will remind Christopher of what’s important and let him reconnect with his family.
Unfortunately, what leads him to this breakthrough is not only obviously but laboriously achieved. The scenes of this earnest fellow constantly making excuses and apologizing for not being there for the two primary women in his life become depressing, and their unvarying disappointment in him merely adds insult to injury.
On top of that, Christopher’s lengthy two-hander scenes with Pooh quickly wear out their welcome; what at first is agreeably amusing shortly becomes grating, then just tedious. Pooh’s brief, self-deprecating remarks, which usually reflect his own admitted shortcomings and/or simple-mindedness, can be pithy and droll in small doses. But, let’s face it, the little guy doesn’t have a whole lot to say, so in the vastly over-extended screen time he gets here, he becomes a genuinely exasperating character.
Fortunately, the other critters are far more gingerly employed, and all the voice actors acquit themselves with admirable wit and tonality.
Christopher’s desperate salvage jobs at work and home naturally come to a good end, but the timing of it all, with Christopher dashing to and fro on trains, in cars and on foot to deliver his company-saving strategy to board members, is so unconvincingly timed and ridiculously frantic that it just doesn’t wash. Forster should have watched a few Buster Keaton classics to be reminded of how such desperate climaxes can be brilliantly pulled off. The inevitable happy ending feels automatic and cheaply achieved.
McGregor’s Christopher is by turns stressed, dour and frantic, not the most appealing of combinations, while Atwell’s Evelyn is caught somewhere in a generational divide between being a proper, traditional wife who will tolerate anything and one who is fed up enough to do something about her husband’s inattention. In between them is Carmichael’s patient and forthright Madeline, who one hopes will not grow up without knowing her father at all.
The voice casting is spot-on, with Jim Cummings’ work as Pooh beautifully calibrated to express the bear’s full awareness of his pronounced shortcomings; it’s not the actor’s fault that he just has far too many lines to say.
Storybook Britain is acutely evoked through the fine production design, costumes and cinematography.
Production company: 2DUX2
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss
Voice cast: Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Director: Marc Forster
Screenwriters: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schoeder, story by Greg Brooker, Mark Steven Johnson, based on characters created by A.A. Milne
Producers: Brigham Taylor, Kristin Burr
Executive producers: Renee Wolfe, Jeremy Johns
Director of photography: Matthias Konigswieser
Production designer: Jennifer Williams
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editor: Matt Chesse
Music: Geoff Zanellik, Jon Brion
Visual effects supervisor: Christopher Lawrence
Animation supervisor: Michael Eames
Casting: Lucy Bevan
Rated PG, 104 minutes