Disney’s mania for reimagining all of its successful animated properties as live-action movies takes an odd turn with Christopher Robin, which places lovable bear Winnie the Pooh and his animal friends in the real world, where they come across mostly as creepy and sad. It’s also a little unsettling to see the title character, who was based on Pooh creator A.A. Milne’s actual son, reimagined as a stereotypical movie workaholic dad. Last year’s rather cloying Milne biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin at least attempted to grapple with the complex relationship between Milne and the real-life Christopher Robin (who was unwittingly thrust into the spotlight thanks to the success of his father’s books).
Disney’s film takes a wholly fictional approach, killing off Christopher Robin’s unnamed dad when Christopher Robin is just a kid, and making Pooh and his fellow residents of the Hundred Acre Wood into actual magical creatures that the young Christopher Robin plays with as a child. Thirty years after leaving his animal companions behind to head to boarding school, the grown-up Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor, looking faintly embarrassed) is a middle manager at a luggage company, a veteran of World War II, and a husband and father who spends more time at the office than he does with his family.
Enter (or re-enter) Pooh, who magically appears when Christopher Robin has declined to join his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) on a weekend trip to the country, instead devoting his time to working on budget cuts at his cartoonishly drab office. Much like movie dads have for decades when confronted with thematically resonant supernatural phenomena, Christopher Robin must learn what’s truly important in life, sacrificing his income-generating work in order to spend time playing with his daughter.
The predictable, disingenuous plot doesn’t have much life to it, and for a movie ostensibly aimed at kids, Christopher Robin is surprisingly dreary, in both its tone and its visual style. The human characters are all one-dimensional, and the CGI animals (including familiar favorites Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and more) often come off like pale copies of their more vibrant past animated counterparts. Inexplicably, while most of them look like stuffed animals come to life, a few instead resemble anthropomorphic versions of real animals, and it’s a toss-up as to which version is more disturbing.
The filmmakers aim for nostalgia by casting Jim Cummings, who’s been the voice of Pooh in Disney productions since 1988 and Tigger since 1990, but the best voice performance comes from Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who at one point literally has to be saved from committing suicide. Moments like that point to the potential for a much darker, weirder movie, like something directed by Terry Gilliam, or maybe the Winnie the Pooh version of Return to Oz.
But the screenplay (from five credited writers) shies away from those elements as quickly as they arise, and journeyman director Marc Forster, whose previous credits include the sappy biopic Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, smooths out all the rough edges. The performances are perfunctory to the point of being soporific, and the life lessons are half-hearted at best. Neither colorful and lively enough for kids nor strange and melancholy enough for adults, Christopher Robin ends up as tiresome as the endless paperwork that keeps the title character from enjoying his life.