There’s an irony to Disney’s Christopher Robin, the latest entry in the “adults remember their childhood” genre, because it constantly reveals itself to be the work of adults who have forgotten what childhood is like. Wes Anderson may have pulled it off in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but if even master of awe Steven Spielberg failed with Hook and master of fanciful absurdism Spike Jonze failed with Where the Wild Things Are, what hope has Christopher Robin director Marc Forster?
Like these other filmmakers, Forster loads the concept of whimsy with such importance that it becomes leaden under the weight, more like a well-meaning parent ordering you to have fun than the natural play of actual children (fittingly, a parent character in the film makes this very command…).
The imperiled adult here is Christopher Robin, who has left the Hundred Acre Woods for boarding school and then World War I and then a wife (Hayley Atwell, wasted in the type of role casting directors usually waste Judy Greer on) and a daughter and a full-time job. Played by Ewan McGregor, the grown-up Robin means well, wanting to disappoint neither his family nor his privilage dunce of a boss (Mark Gattis), but ultimately chooses the latter. Left alone to work while wife and daughter visit the countryside, Robin learns an important lesson when Winnie-the-Pooh appears, in the form of an exquisitely animated stuffed animal, and draws him back to the world of (Disney versions of) A.A. Milne’s characters.
It’s impossible to not be a little charmed by that lesson, “Doing nothing sometimes leads to the very best something,” especially contrasted to the King Lear-esque counterpoint adult Robin often makes, “Nothing comes from nothing.” But the movie lays out its theme with all the cynicism of a Christmas movie, asserting the importance of rest over work because that’s the right thing to say, not because it’s a conviction.
The movie works best when it lets Pooh and his friends be themselves, especially since the movie wisely keeps veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has been performing as Pooh and Tigger for three decades. The more famous actors do well in their parts — including Brad Garrett as Eeyore, Peter Capaldi as Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo as Kanga, and Toby Jones as Owl — but Cummings instincively understands why these characters are so beloved. The movie’s purest delights come every time Tigger or Pooh spout malapropisms to support their loopy logic.
But the cast can only do so much when hampered by such an uninspired screenplay (which includes contributions by the usually dependable Alex Ross Perry and Tom McCarthy) and plodding direction from Forster. Working with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser, Forster shoots everything with the pallette of a rainy autumn day, using the most baroque lighting since Darkest Hour. Combined with his tendancy to use handheld cameras close up on actor’s faces, Forster does his best to underscore the story’s stark importance, even when it tries to be silly.
For instance, consider the scene in which a crash draws Christopher Robin into the kitchen to find that Pooh has broken a shelf he mistook for a ladder. As Robin tries to explain the error to Pooh, Forster cuts to insert shots of a jar rolling off a shelf. The suggestion of anticipation implies a gag, but there’s not nearly enough information to sell it. Where is the jar in relation to Robin and Pooh? Where is it in the kitchen? What’s inside of it? Why do we care that it might fall? When it hits the floor behind Robin, McGregor gamely responds like the butt of the joke, but the audience remains unmoved.
That’s Christopher Robin in a nutshell. It gestures toward something sweet and earnest, but it’s too serious, too performative — frankly, too grown-up — to be actually fun.