Christopher Robin revels in the opportunity to make you cry, and to that end it succeeds marvelously.
But after several early, genuine emotional gut-punches the film feels like a cheap attempt to cash in on viewers nostalgic baggage, and while that may not seem apparent at first, by the climactic scene the film’s shallow attempts at emotional depth become clear.
Directed by Marc Forster (World War Z), Christopher Robin is an extension of A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh stories. Set shortly after the end of World War 2, the film follows a grown-up Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) as he navigates the banalities of the adult world and reunites with Pooh (Jim Cummings) and the other inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher’s wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and his daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) get swept up in the adventure and learn that the buttoned up, boring adult Christopher Robin was once a lively, imaginative child.
For most of the movie Christopher struggles with balancing his family and his work life; a conflict that comes to a head when he’s forced to choose between spending a weekend with Evelyn and Madeline at Christopher’s childhood home or dealing with a crisis at work.
From the first scene — young Christopher Robin’s going away party in Hundred Acre Woods — Christopher Robin is a sad affair. It is one of several scenes in which Christopher tells a confused Pooh that he’s leaving forever. Forster manages to cram two or three tearful goodbyes into the first half of the movie, and though they often feel like cheap shots — show me the soulless monster who wouldn’t tear-up when Pooh asks why Christopher threw him away — each is effective and unpleasant.
But the second half of the film doesn’t have the same impact. A combination of emotional overload and a lack of imagination render the climactic moments lifeless and dull. The third act is a low-stakes chase set on the grey streets of London. After Christopher leaves the cottage to return to work, Madeline realizes he left his important work papers behind. So, to ensure her father’s success, she takes the papers and Pooh to London, which spurs Evelyn to chase after her. Though Madeline is alone in a large city, she never feels truly at risk; the worst that could happen is that she gets lost, wanders home and calls Evelyn. Even if Christopher doesn’t receive his paper and leaves work, the film presents that possibility as positive, not apocalyptic. Even the climactic confrontation between a reformed Christopher and Madeline doesn’t have the emotional resonance of earlier scenes. Christopher Robin is at its best when it’s titular character is interacting with his furry friends; the further Christopher gets from Pooh the further the film drifts from its emotional core.
McGregor is an effective adult Christopher Robin. He infuses the beaten-down character with enough humor and whimsy to recall Christopher’s younger self. The other non-CGI actors — Atwell and Carmichael — are competent enough, but not remarkable: a likely side effect of their characters not having much to do. Atwell in particular is relegated to a few crucial but unexciting moments at the beginning and end of the film.
Almost all of the tertiary characters, including several of Pooh’s friends, are also underdeveloped. Though the film is about the relationship between Pooh and Christopher, there are a peculiar number of side characters who seem completely unnecessary. Several of Christopher’s employees pop up several times throughout the film, but their poorly-defined personalities make it hard to recall their traits or purpose. Several of Pooh’s friends suffer from a different problem with a similar result; rather than appearing too frequently and leaving little impact, Kanga, Roo, Rabbit, and Owl are delightful any time they’re on screen. Each scene has humor, energy and an overwhelming sense of loving comradery, but unfortunately the entire Hundred Acre Wood crew is only together in the very beginning and very end of Christopher Robin. Their absence is a reminder that Christopher Robin wasn’t the only character that made Milne’s stories great.
Despite using classic children’s characters, Christopher Robin is not a children’s film. Not only is the story about ideas and issues that are best appreciated from an adult perspective, the film doesn’t have the visual pop that often defines children’s media. Most of the animals of Hundred Acre Wood are modeled after stuffed animals: complete with pelts of felt and beaded eyes. On one hand this interpretation of Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga, and Roo is vaguely unsettling — they wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. But the slightly unsettling take on the characters actually works in the film’s favor. It’s an aesthetic representation of the way our perceptions of the world change when we cross into adulthood. The things that we find endearing as children become baffling or creepy as adults. The sacrifices involved in becoming a successful grownup take center stage in Christopher Robin both in the aesthetic and the plot; Forster uses Pooh’s persistent naiveté, Madeline’s vanishing imagination, and Christopher’s initial uptight attitude to illustrate the differences between innocent, growing, and grown.
Unfortunately, the grittier aesthetic has a drawback — the entirety of the film looks bleak, even when the story is cheery. At first, before Christopher regains his optimistic whimsy, the stark style fits. The grey London streets feel dirty and dreary as Christopher schleps to work and misses major life milestones. But, even when he changes, the cinematography doesn’t, robbing his character arc of its dynamism. The audience sees the world through Christopher’s eyes and should experience the same shift in perception that he does.
Christopher Robin is an emotional experience; a film that is more exhausting than entertaining. There are numerous emotional beats that feel excessive and forced — but those over the top moments are preferable to a weak climax and dull conclusion. Christopher Robin is a movie full of complex, interesting and moving ideas, that are muddled by the excessive melancholy that underlies each scene.