Change in national economic focus inevitably shifts national identity one way or another, perhaps even entirely displaces past identities, the same way age and growth inevitably overtake the unironic innocence and wonder associated with childhood. Though Christopher Robin’s being a Disney children’s film means it will, by its very nature, merely present surface level depictions of said ideas juxtaposed with one another so as to give the adults something to latch onto and not bore the kiddies into a retroactively punishing coma, it’s difficult not to see Marc Forster’s film through an effective, if intentionally non-profound post-industrial, certainly post-war English lens.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, a subject this grown up Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) initially finds suitable bedtime story material for his young daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), if a top-down emphasis on heavily regimented lives, from ports to cotton mills, didn’t do its part in stripping away whatever optimism the average working man had left about bettering his and his potential family’s lives, the low wages and relatively poor living conditions might have finished the job. Existences governed by a need for employment, wherever it took them, as well as the out of touch businessmen ruling over them like the famed Big Brother. And that doesn’t even begin to touch what wartime not only does to its valiantly willing or understandably reluctant participants, but also can do to a nation whose traditional economies are either progressively phased out or shot entirely in the face of wholescale restructuring in their wake.
Naturally, the attitudes engendered by such a society trickle down to its youth who, as illustrated during this film’s opening credits sequence depicting the time in between Christopher Robin’s farewell to the Hundred Acre Wood and his starting a family, are either implicitly or explicitly instructed to discourage imagination in favor of study and hard numbers. Though to be fair, these aren’t concepts strictly limited to English or broader Western society. Cursory immersion in the real world makes one realize that dreams and pursuing one’s passions more often than not go unrewarded. This most of all is what makes Christopher Robin, from a strictly adult perspective, so hopelessly, unconsciously depressing; that the film allows its older attendees to indulge their inner child with a sweetly innocent and familiar IP perhaps integral to their childhood, with all of the unchecked optimism that entails, only to eventually send them on their merry way back to a reality where, in many cases, dreams have a price.
But this isn’t a movie for adults – at least, one that isn’t directly meant for their consumption, as all of this represents conscious, but subdued subtext to keep them invested in necessarily lighter cinematic fare. For adults who grew up with Winnie the Pooh as a literary and/or visual staple in their fictional diet, Christopher Robin is another exercise in corporate-mandated nostalgia whose quality is dependent upon their willingness to reembrace familiar characters and circumstances, but for the kids likely growing up with their own Winnie the Pooh expotitians (expeditions, for those not fluent in Pooh-speak), it’s another gleefully uncomplicated, whimsical adventure that doesn’t ask much from them and can easily sidle up alongside other franchise texts. It’s the kind of film that can straightforwardly wander without succumbing to, or even care for what makes such an oxymoron.
Appropriately, that means the plot itself is overly simplified to point of boiling itself down to and progressing as one self-contained half-hour or so episode after another. First, Pooh revisits an adult Christopher Robin, asking him to aid his search for their missing friends as a dense fog has fallen upon the Hundred Acre Wood (obvious symbolism being obvious). Second, Christopher Robin must remember the importance of imagination and play; that existence cannot solely be mediated by work, especially as he loses Pooh on his quest. Third, Pooh and Co., with the help of Madeline, go on a quest to London to return misplaced, vital documents Christopher Robin needs for his humdrum job. If ever there were a testament to how the traditional three-act structure could be superficially modified while remaining explicitly unsophisticated, look no further than this movie.
Having been written by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, and undoubtedly representing a strangely accurate visualization of what a collaboration between the three would look like, the film maintains equal attention upon callbacks to various pieces of Winnie the Pooh iconography and an un-ebbing feeling of warm and fuzzy quirkiness with Pooh’s typically atypical mannerisms and the rest of the gang’s unchanged, broad characterizations. Arguably, it’s more dependent upon the effectiveness its voice actors, including and especially Jim Cummings’s reprisals of Pooh Bear and Tigger, to establish a genuine-feeling atmosphere with carefully curated dialogue catering to each character’s disparate personalities considering this world is one that hasn’t normally been realized through live action. As long as each character is convincingly themselves, which thanks to a talent voice cast also including Brad Garrett, Peter Capaldi and Toby Jones works out as so, the basic proceedings and plot structure can simply subsist on elementary, one-liner-based humor – which it does, and very well in fact.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Christopher Robin as a character is a complete afterthought in his own film, even though the story and arc supporting him are restricted to bare bones elements forsaking nuance for emotional effect. Of course, a 104-minute, quickly paced family film isn’t the most fertile breeding ground for deep dives into a protagonist’s life and what causes them to change, and so the change McGregor’s Robin undergoes may be the one you expect, but it hits all the right notes with the help supporting characters and their dialogue overtly building and communicating the thematic backbone transporting him from Point A to Point B. Some uneven storytelling decisions and pacing transitions may intermittently interrupt the sense of wonder surrounding the affair, as well as McGregor seeming oddly flat in some circumstances requiring him to bridge the tonal gap between kid’s movie realism and magical realism, between whimsy and relative gloom, but any one of Pooh and Co. are usually present to pick up the slack.
It’s one of those films when there isn’t really much else to extract, aside from the sense of fun and subtly placed ideas expressed at the beginning of this review, albeit including a brief nod to socialist thought at the conclusion – in its case, the shared wealth being not monetary assets, but rather paid vacation time and basic reprieve from an overworked life. But with the primary aim being a near-constant stretch through wholesome quaintness, there isn’t much else to demand. Regardless of age, it is the cinematic equivalent of a parent or grandparent sitting you down for story time, expecting and hoping you’ll remain engaged with little way to feel truly involved. Our reception of it is dependent upon us just patiently sitting and listening. On those merits alone, even without much to do, Christopher Robin is worth listening to.