Years after he gave away playing in the Hundred Acre Wood, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is a harried businessman in post-World War II London, under the pump at work and regretfully neglectful of his adoring wife (Hayley Atwell) and cherubic daughter (Bronte Carmichael). Given the choice between a family weekend in the country and working all weekend at the behest of his stuffy, entitled boss (Mark Gatiss, perfectly cast), Christopher chooses the latter. It’s rather perfect timing, then, for his childhood imaginary (or is he?) friend Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) to re-enter his life, dragging him away on an adventure to find Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi) and the rest of the gang, who have been missing since Christopher grew up.
If you can imagine a boring and even more obviously manipulative version of Hook filtered through the self-importance of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, you’ve got a fair idea of what Disney’s Christopher Robin tastes like. This is what happens when someone at Disney sees Paul King’s wonderful Paddington films, panics, and rushes something into production that can compete in the same cultural space, tapping Marc Forster, whose credits include the superficially similar Finding Neverland, to head up the project (Tellingly, a live action Winnie the Pooh project was announced in 2015 – a year after the first Paddington charmed all comers).
The result is a bizarre chimera of a film, by turns twee, self-serious, often depressing, and – occasionally, mind you – charming, but not as charming as it thinks it is. The whole thing feels like the product of a thousand bad decisions, which is frustrating because the more obvious choice is always easily found by turning 180 degrees. Starting with a long, grey, downbeat prelude in which Christopher Robin abandons his childhood friends and drifts into anonymous adulthood? Wrong choice – you’ve just lost the kids in the audience. Descending into an awkward and unearned farcical chase sequence for the climax? Wrong choice – you’ve just lost the adults. Dropping in a frankly frightening sequence wherein it’s implied that Pooh has been sleeping in a misty netherworld version of the Hundred Acre Woods for decades waiting, Cthulhu-like, to be called once more into being? Wrong choice – this is no place for existential horror.
Everyone does their best to keep the wheels turning, but it’s a thankless task for stalwarts like McGregor and Atwell, who mug as hard as they can. Atwell in particular is ill-used, but then perhaps she’s better off than poor Ewan, who gets the bulk of the screen time and is clearly uncomfortable acting opposite the film’s menagerie of CGI creatures (Post-Jar Jar Stress Disorder, perhaps?).
The non-human characters fare better – it is never not delightful to hear Jim Cummings as Pooh and Tigger, and whoever cast doleful Brad Garrett as Eeyore deserves a raise. But that’s about the kindest thing you can say about the whole shebang.
Christopher Robin feels like a rush job – a cynical attempt to latch onto a tone and a form that has proven successful elsewhere, but with no understanding of how and why it has worked before. If we’re going to compare Paddington again – and really, Christopher Robin invites us to – those films, like the best children’s fiction, work because although they appear simple, they are immaculately, precisely constructed works of imagination, with every element carefully considered and moving in concert to produce a sense of wonder and joy. Christopher Robin can’t even decide on the “reality” of its cast of moth-eaten toys and woodland creatures in the context of its own narrative. It asks us to give ourselves over to it, but offers no reason to do so. Instead we get the usual platitudes about staying young on the inside, the importance of family over work, play instead of duty – which are all fine ideals up to a point, but have been better and more agreeably presented in older, better films. Here, all that comes packaged in a dull and insipid story – which is an ironic and damning indictment. For a film about toys coming to life, Christopher Robin is surprisingly lifeless.