Christopher Robin (2018)
Dir: Marc Forster
Even though I’ve seen it twice, I still can’t answer the biggest question, one that filmmakers should have in mind from the very start of production, who exactly is this film made for?
Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has grown up and forgotten about his childhood friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. When Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) can’t find the others, he ventures into adult Christopher’s world, emerging in London so they can help each other.
There was another film released just 10 months earlier about the real-life Christopher Robin Milne, who was writer A. A. Milne’s son, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ (yes, even Wikipedia suggests the two titles could get confused). Though it didn’t feature the children’s characters, it dealt with the realities of Christopher Robin growing up during a difficult time in history and the pressures of being featured in his fathers work. A bleaker tone with mature themes was central to that film’s story and purpose and though this Disney produced one should be the antithesis, it seems an overly similar tone has been adopted. If you saw the trailer and thought your young children would love it, sadly I think you’ll be sorely disappointed, and quite simply they’ll be bored. It’s a film that works much better for adults who have grown up with Pooh in their lives and now have children of their own, they are the ones who’ll forgive the tone and pace in service of the family-focused message.
I wonder if Disney had the chance to make the other Christopher Robin film and turned it down, but then liked the general concept so angled this movie more in that direction. Hired to do a rewrite, Tom McCarthy has some feel-good credits in his favour, but his most recent film before this was ‘Spotlight’. I don’t understand the thinking behind Disney looking for someone to hone almost the last draft of the film and someone saying, “you know who we should get? The guy who wrote ‘Spotlight'”. His was just one of three credits for the screenplay, so that tells me a lot, that they knew they weren’t getting the tone right and kept bringing in writers to course-correct it instead of reworking the film from the ground up. Director Marc Forster was the director of ‘Finding Neverland’. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how he was a good fit for something that more resembles ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ and there’s absolutely no chance that his directing the J. M. Barrie film isn’t the reason why he was hired for this, the similarities are too strong to ignore.
CinemaSins on YouTube recently dealt with this film with their exacting treatment, and though comedic, I can’t imagine I can review the film much better than they did. All the points raised, even those made as a joke, were spot on and really highlighted the confused muddle that this film really is. Disney clearly wanted to do something ‘live action’ with these characters, had a concept (even if it seems to be playing catch up) but ended up in an odd place between the target demographic of that more mature story and the audience of the lovable Disney characters.
Much of the film looks really bleak, colours are muted and dull. A Winnie the Pooh film should be much brighter, both visually and tonally, it also needs better pacing to make it an adventure, not a slog. There’s a huge part in the middle of the film that just drags. Though there are bits during that time that are lovely, they dive a little deeper on Pooh and Christopher Robin’s mismatched personalities, it’s so slow that it struggles to reach the excitement levels required to call it an adventure, or even fun.
The casting of the human characters is generally good. Hayley Atwell as Christopher’s wife is woefully underused, she’s always fantastic and has a track record of being convincing playing roles set in this era. Her being paired with Ewan McGregor seems like a sure-fire winner and the two of them could be really uplifting but we hardly see them together, their courtship is rushed through and their reunion later hardly capitalises on the potential.
Jim Cummings voicing Pooh is great, though the look of the characters is very different to how they are drawn in animated form, that voice, aged somewhat, is a beautiful thread that links the character back to the more familiar form. Some of the other voices are also, while recast, very good. The one exception for me is Piglet who sounds absolutely nothing like the character I remember whose voice was distinctively breathy and timid in a way that was always really sweet. I don’t like how Nick Mohammed has voiced him now in no way at all resembling that, though that may just be personally down to how it clashed with my memory of Piglet and something that wouldn’t bother most other people.
The film has gained an Academy Award nomination for the visual effects, and while the characters don’t quite look like their animated versions, nor the toy versions you might buy, they do really look like era-appropriate toys Christopher Robin would have had as a child and their integration into the real world is very good indeed.
There are some really good lines of dialogue, almost exclusively Pooh’s, that completely get his lovable ways right, and each time he says something so in keeping with the character, especially in that voice, it’s a glimmer of hope, a bright spot in the film that hits the ideal note. It’s such a shame then that the rest of the film doesn’t follow suit, injecting a little extra vigour into the lackadaisical bear and building around the warm-hearted true centre of its appeal.
Available for rent or purchase in all the standard ways and places, this is far different from the film the trailers, posters, or Disney would have lead you to expect. The characters are charming as ever, beautifully recreated in the real world, but there’s less adventure and excitement than is generally needed to hold children’s attention.