If you’re looking to Christopher Robin for an uplifting and charming romp through the Hundred Acre Wood, you will be bitterly disappointed in Disney’s live-action re-imagination of Winnie The Pooh. Playing as a sort of sequel to the adored cartoons, this deeply dismal movie kills off author A.A. Milne before the opening credits have finished. And from there, things stay grey, grumbling, and soul-wiltingly dour for much of the runtime.
This movie is utterly confounding. Somehow, screenwriters Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder looked at Milne’s darling stories and decided what they needed was a stressed out, over-worked, middle-aged man whose work life balance is all out of whack. Ewan McGregor stars as the grown Christopher Robin, whose lost sight of the importance of family and play. So, much much time of this children’s movie is focused on his job as an efficiency manager at a luggage company, where he’s trying to prevent massive layoffs. There’s actually a montage of Christopher Robin doing paperwork. You know, for kids!
Meanwhile, Hayley Atwell is wasted as Christopher Robin’s neglected wife, who tsk-tsks him to remember his life is now and he should live it. But he won’t begin to realize that until after he’s spent an excruciatingly long time screaming at and insulting poor Pooh bear. Honestly, that sequence is so deeply unpleasant that I considered walking out of the theater. The mid-life crisis of bitter men is not what I look for in Winnie the Pooh.
Other alarming creative choices include setting Christopher Robin in a world where Milne never wrote his wildly popular Pooh books. So Christopher Robin and his beloved bear are not iconic here. His childhood—as depicted in last year’s bleak Goodbye Christopher Robin—is not ruined by his parents thirst for fame. And he does not grow embittered because of it. Instead, this movie murders off his flawed father when he’s in a growing up montage. There, the film also breezes through service as a soldier, wooing his wife, and having their daughter, both who did really exist but get new names here. So, it’s a bizarre blend of fact and fiction, slathered in ennui and grey. Like everything is grey. The tint of the film for the first half, and the designs of the characters, presented as photo-real and really ragged toys and mangy woodland creatures.
Remember when we all freaked out over the first Paddington trailer because the off design made him seem less cuddly and more creepy? Paddington’s makers adjusted ahead of its release. But Disney didn’t get the memo. There are bare spots in Pooh’s plush exterior, exposing the stitching, which looks like surgical scars. There’s wear to all their fabrics and seemingly a thin film of grime. These do not look like the vibrant, adorable residents of the Hundred Acre wood who enchanted us in Disney cartoons and children’s picture books. They instead seem better suited to Child’s Play or the Annabelle franchise. When Christopher Robin asks them to play “nap” so as not to arise suspicion when in public, the toys look dead. In scenes where Pooh whispers urgently or where Piglet runs terrified through the woods, it was easy to imagine this kids movie re-cut as outright horror, especially when they scare the wits out of Christopher Robin’s unsuspecting daughter by sort of stalking her on a tennis court.
Oh! And you know that charming image Disney released of Pooh and his pals chilling on a beach?
Not in the movie. Nothing so winsome or vividly colorful exists in its entire runtime.
The only way Christopher Robin is satisfying is in the voice work. To McGregor’s credit, he tries to be the perfect partner to Pooh and pals. But he screamed at Pooh. At length. After that, it was impossible to have fun with him. However, Jim Cummings returns to voice Pooh and Tigger, characters he’s played for 30 years. Brad Garrett, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen, and Toby Jones make up the rest of the voice cast, and do a solid job of giving us performances that feel blissfully familiar. Capaldi’s Rabbit is bossy and agitated. Jones’s Owl is pompous but confused. Okonedo’s Kanga is patient and kind, Garrett’s Eyeore a grumbling storm cloud on four stumpy legs. But Cummings, whether he’s singing the Tigger song or confessing Pooh is a bear of little brain, is perfection. It feels like the soothing embrace of a warm blanket or a gentle hug. But also, it’s an almost painful reminder of what untapped whimsy and joy this movie could have held.
When it come to Disney’s live-action re-imaginings Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, the filmmakers stayed pretty close to their animated inspirations. With Christopher Robin, director Marc Forster takes a big leap, trying to make the stories originally intended for young children into something mature for older audiences. In doing so, he’s made a movie that will likely bore children to tears. There’s an excruciating amount of adult twaddle before Pooh and his pals pop up for fun. And grown-ups too may well revolt, because we could use some wholesome charm and child-like wonder right about now!
I sit here seething and astonished. Who amongst us wants to see Christopher Robin being a distant dad and neglectful husband? Who wants to see him do paperwork and stress over his job? Who wants to watch him spend a bizarrely generous amount of time dodging a pushy neighbor who frantically insists they play Gin Rummy? Or see Pooh and his friends tattered and abandoned? Who asked for this? What wants it? WHO IS THIS MOVIE FOR!?