Christopher Robin takes Winnie the Pooh in a somber new direction

When it comes to movie tropes, you could build an entire subgenre out of The Absentee Parent Who Puts Work Ahead of Family. Whether it’s James Caan in Elf, Robin Williams in Hook, Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, or any of the countless permutations before or since, it’s a story pattern audiences can recognize almost instinctively. A parent — usually the dad, though not always — is a no-fun grump that would rather focus on his job instead of spending time with his family, until some (often fantastical) intervention takes places that helps him understand what’s really important.

Christopher Robin, Disney’s latest attempt to bring beloved animated characters into live-action settings, follows that template with devotion. Ewan McGregor plays the title character, a grown-up version of the young boy who once played with his friends Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, and Tigger. As an adult, however, he’s developed a knack for neglecting his wife and young daughter. It’s clear from the first 15 minutes that Christopher Robin is going to cover some very familiar narrative terrain, and in a more general comedy or another kind of high-concept movie, the repetition would be exhausting before it had begun.

But something fascinating happens over the course of Christopher Robin. The movie is incredibly earnest, and it also embraces a real sense of longing and regret — so much so that it almost feels inappropriate for a children’s movie at times. The feel-good finale that the subgenre demands is there, of course, but it’s the journey that allows Christopher Robin to explore how painful it can be for children to be neglected by their parents — using, of all things, the performance of a computer-generated stuffed bear.

Christopher Robin starts with what amounts to an adaptation of the end of author A.A. Milne’s 1928 book The House at Pooh Corner. A young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) is getting ready to leave for boarding school, and Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), and his other stuffed animal friends throw him a goodbye party. Christopher then goes off to school, which teaches him to be a serious-minded young man, and he eventually leaves his memories of Pooh and his other friends behind.

The film then jumps forward to a grown-up Christopher (McGregor), who now works at a luggage company in London. He’s married to Evelyn (Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell) and has a child of his own, a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). But his job has nevertheless overtaken Christopher’s life, and it’s his family that ends up paying the price. When a work emergency forces him to stay behind while Evelyn and Madeline go on vacation, he is paid a visit from someone he hasn’t seen in quite some time: Winnie the Pooh. Pooh’s friends have gone missing, and he needs Christopher to come back to the Hundred Acre Wood of his childhood to help find them.

It’s not a particularly inspired setup, but it kicks off a round of fish-out-of-water comedy as Pooh reacts to the business of Christopher’s life in London when all the bear really cares about is lounging about and eating honey. The antics are charming enough, and they’re certainly the kind of thing that you’d expect from a live-action Disney adaptation. But from very early on in Christopher Robin, director Marc Forster makes it clear that his movie is not some simple piece of diversionary fluff. While Christopher is still a young boy in school, he’s forced to deal with some of life’s harder lessons. And as an adult, he’s clearly upset by the fact that his daughter and wife are slowly slipping away from him. He just can’t seem to understand why, and his inability to appreciate whimsy and play turn him into a tragic figure.

Bringing the point home are Christopher’s interactions with Pooh. Jim Cummings has been voicing the bear for 30 years at this point, and there is something comforting about hearing him in Christopher Robin. But the way the film seems to judge the life of older Christopher Robin recontextualizes Pooh’s silly banter. It turns what is usually frothy and goofy into something that feels more like a sad longing; Pooh starts to represent the lightheartedness that Christopher needs but is no longer able to embrace. And when Christopher gets frustrated later in the film and gets angry with the stuffed bear, it’s clear he’s punching down. As the audience’s sympathy sways, it becomes clear that maybe Christopher Robin didn’t grow up to be such a nice guy after all.

I realize the absurdity of talking about Winnie the Pooh, of all characters, in this kind of context, but that is part of the magic trick the Christopher Robin is able to pull off. The bear, and the rest of his anthropomorphic friends, are stunningly impressive computer-generated creations, looking every inch like the worn and well-loved stuffed animals that inspired Milne’s original characters. And the various voice actors all do a strong job of giving each of them personality and life. (Brad Garrett’s Eeyore, to no surprise, is the comedic standout.)

But it is Winnie the Pooh, especially Cumming’s vocal performance, that serves as the heart of the movie. It is Pooh’s own lack of self-regard that seems to echo Christopher’s feelings about himself; it is the simple, honest hurt the bear feels after being yelled at that drives home how thoughtless Christopher has been to his family. In a way, Pooh becomes the direct emotional stand-in for Christopher’s daughter Madeline, or any child who’s ever been neglected or ignored by a parent that they love. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this Pooh has pathos, but it’s close, and the result is a movie that may leave audiences crying more than they are laughing.

It’s almost a shame that the movie ends up doggedly returning to the safety of its subgenre expectations by the end. This is a Disney live-action riff on Winnie the Pooh, so it would be blasphemous if everything didn’t work out in the end and everyone wasn’t primed to live happily ever after (or in another sequel, should the film perform at the box office). Of course, a movie with a setup like this is ultimately going to be about the importance of family and friends and cherishing those that are close to us. And that of course-ness is felt in the film’s final act, as everyone from the writers to the actors seems to dial up the wackiness and whimsy in order to deliver the feel-good ending a film like this demands.

But that doesn’t mean Christopher Robin doesn’t traverse some intriguing and subversive terrain on its way there. I imagine reactions to the film will be divided. Some will see only the warm nostalgia they’re looking for; others might feel betrayed by the somber take on beloved characters. But it’s when those two sentiments combine that Forster’s film is at its most interesting. Christopher Robin doesn’t just use nostalgia as a salve; it uses it as a way to mourn things that we’ve lost in our lives and as a way to unpack how our actions can hurt those around us. It’s a feel-good movie that really doesn’t think there’s a whole lot to feel good about much of the time. But perhaps those are the kinds of circumstances in which it is most important to remember the impossible possibility of childhood — even if the idea is mostly embodied by a talking stuffed animal.

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