“It must be hard to imagine your father as a child,” Christopher’s wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), says to their daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), in the most self-aware, ironic line of Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin.
For a Hollywood family film, something that seems even harder is imagining a father as an actual adult.
As played by Ewan McGregor in the latest exercise in Disney brand management, Christopher Robin is all grown up, but he’s not really an adult. (The name “Milne” isn’t mentioned; in this universe, “Robin” is his surname, not his middle name.)
I want to say Christopher is a family-film stereotype of a man who has grown up the wrong way, having lost all touch with what’s important in life, except he isn’t thought out clearly enough to be much of a character at all.
You know the type I mean: the man caught up in work and grown-up things who has no clue how to be there for his loved ones, until at last he learns a valuable lesson about play, imagination and/or family time.
In honor of the dad in Mary Poppins, we could call stories like this “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” movies, though Pooh fans will not be surprised that, instead of a kite, Christopher Robin has a balloon. (I thought about calling them “Cat’s in the Cradle” movies, but on a hunch, I Googled it. Sure enough, TV Tropes already thought of that, though the site’s preferred label is “When You Coming Home, Dad?”)
When such movies are done well, you get, say, The Incredibles or John Favreau’s Chef. When they aren’t, you get Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper’s Penguins or Steven Spielberg’s Hook — possibly the closest analogy for Christopher Robin, though Hook, for all its flaws, was clearly a personal film for Spielberg, whereas Christopher Robin feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies without a cogent vision of its own.
At any rate, until Winnie the Pooh and the rest of Christopher Robin’s childhood friends show up to help him recover his childlike spirit, we’re stuck with a story in which, when Madeline asks for a bedtime story, Christopher Robin idiotically begins reading a dry British history text instead of something like Treasure Island, which is what Madeline really wants to hear.
Christopher also wants to send Madeline to the very best boarding school, which is not what Evelyn and Madeline want.
All the same, Madeline has absorbed some of her father’s work ethic; when Evelyn suggests that Madeline go out and play, Madeline embraces it as an assignment, and an opportunity to achieve, and is nonplused by her mother’s suggestion that she instead simply have fun. (She winds up pretending to play tennis with the balloon — and imagining herself winning Wimbledon.)
Most centrally, to Evelyn and Madeline’s crushing disappointment, Christopher has bailed on a promised family outing to his old countryside cottage in Sussex in order to work over the weekend on a big presentation for his London office on Monday. Notably, Christopher works at Winslow Luggage as an efficiency expert, an occupation that can function as Hollywood shorthand for a soulless corporate cog.
“If I work really hard now,” Christopher tries to explain, “in the future our lives will be ...”
“Impressive? Worse?” Evelyn interrupts. “We don’t care. We want you.”
In the midst of this too-familiar exchange, Christopher seems so caught up in the presumed plot tropes that he’s forgotten to mention a crucial fact: The callous boss (Mark Gatiss) who dropped this assignment on him earlier that day plans to fire a bunch of good people unless Christopher can figure out how to save their jobs by Monday.
“Your father promised these people good jobs after the war!” Christopher pleads, sounding not at all like a corporate cog without a soul. “They’d do anything for this company! I’d do anything for this company.”
So on the one hand Christopher Robin wants to be a movie about a London executive caught up in his work when he should be playing with his daughter in the country, reliving the magic of his childhood days; but on the other hand, it’s saddled him with a genuinely noble mission.
I’m reminded of a thoughtful line in P.J. Hogan’s flawed but interesting 2003 take on Peter Pan, in which the much ridiculed figure of Mr. Darling gets a remarkably sympathetic tribute from his wife.
Mary Darling tells her daughter Wendy that her father is a brave man. Since this version of George Darling is a rather milquetoast figure much put upon by his co-workers, this requires some explanation, so Mary continues:
“There are many different kinds of bravery. There’s the bravery of thinking of others before oneself. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he’s made many sacrifices for his family and put away many dreams.”
Continuing in a poignant, poetic mode that almost sounds like A.A. Milne, but much more like J.M. Barrie, Mrs. Darling adds that he put his dreams away “in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer. He does. And that is why he is brave.”
That is an actual idea, one with real poignancy, about adulthood and fatherhood and loss — something lacking in Christopher Robin. Actual ideas, I mean.
Like Forster’s own Peter Pan-themed movie, the J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland, Christopher Robin is handsomely appointed and mounted, with a lovely sepia-toned limited-animation prologue and flipping storybook pages with chapter heads like “In Which Christopher Robin Gets Some Sad News” moving the story through an opening montage from Christopher Robin’s last party in the Hundred-Acre Wood to boarding school, the death of his father, marriage, the war, and so on.
Also like Finding Neverland, Christopher Robin is full of melancholy and a wan approximation of the whimsical spirit of its literary inspiration. (As a point of comparison, the 2011 reboot The Muppets, with Jason Siegel and Amy Adams, had a similar melancholy tone, but nailed the whimsy.)
Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore are sufficiently themselves to arouse our affections for these beloved characters, whether we know and love them principally from the A.A. Milne stories or from the best Disney cartoons, including the classic anthology The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and the latter-day 2011 Winnie the Pooh.
I love them both, and I’m glad that Christopher Robin doesn’t entirely take its bearings from the cartoons.
For one thing, while Jim Cummings continues his dead-on impressions of Sterling Holloway’s Pooh and Paul Winchell’s Tigger, no great effort has been made to reproduce the other familiar voices. I also appreciate that Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore are rendered not as computer-animated animals, like Paddington, but as well-worn stuffed animals. (Rabbit and Owl, on the other hand, are real creatures of the Hundred-Acre Wood.)
On the other hand, the characters often sound like they’re just reprising their greatest hits. Many lines are familiar, although the film’s mantra, “Doing Nothing often leads to the very best Something,” is a suitably Milne-esque epigram that seems original to the film.
The 2011 Winnie the Pooh included a chapter about dealing with a nonexistent Heffalump, and in Christopher Robin, there’s a digression about battling a nonexistent Woozle — though the film winds up tagging Christopher’s boss at Winslow Luggage as a real-life Woozle.
Here’s the thing: Christopher already knew his boss was (semantics aside) a Woozle. He was resisting him from the outset. Why isn’t that worthy, too? Because he wasn’t confident and goofy while he did it? Give me the bravery of the 2003 Peter Pan’s Mr. Darling any day.
When a movie like Christopher Robin works, you want to surrender to its magic. I sat down to Christopher Robin hoping to surrender. Fifteen minutes in, I wanted to stage an intervention with the characters, which is not what happens when a movie like this works.
Reviewing Paddington 2, I observed that not only was Hollywood unable to make such movies, no one there really wanted to. For details, see Christopher Robin.
Caveat Spectator: Fleeting war action; slapstick humor. Kids and up.