All of us have childhood memories. For both better and worse, they make up our introduction to the world, and how we will respond to it as adults. One element that can sometimes be a part of this arrangement revolves around the kind of entertainment we take in as kids. There are a great deal of us whose childhood is in many ways a catalogue of the cartoon characters we saw at an impressionable age. Some of them left enough of an impact (and here I'm thinking of Garfield and the Three Stooges) that they can inform the ways in which we look at the world today.
Disney's Winnie the Pooh was never one of the big things for me growing up. It was definitely something that was there, and I can remember watching it as part of my childhood, yet the character and his world are little more than just fragments scattered here and there as a sort of background noise in my memory. As a result, the character spun off from a series of books by A.A. Milne was never one of those instant-recall figures for me. It was more like something that was just sort of there, hanging around awhile before fading out of sight. I don't know if this makes me the ideal audience for this picture, considering it's subject matter. All I know is that after having a chance to sit down and watch it, my thoughts are as follows.
Christopher Robin is a very strange boy. It's hard to tell if he even has any real friends. He keeps to himself most of the time, either in his room or else wandering around the Sussex countryside of his family's house. As far as is possible to make out, the boy spends most of his time hanging with a set of friends who may all just be in his imagination.
These friends are an interesting bunch. They are a set of anthropomorphized, talking animals, who may be little more than a set of dolls in the nursery. There's a bear named Pooh (Jim Cummings), a playful tiger named Tigger (Cummings again), and a meek individual named Piglet (Nick Mohammed). There's also Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), a marsupial mother named Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and her son, Roo (Sara Sheen). Last but not least, there is Eeyore (Brad Garret), a donkey so morose you have to wonder if half the time he isn't laughing in his sleeves at the whole affair.
These individuals, real or otherwise, make up the entirety of Christoper Robin's childhood. However, as all children must, the time comes for the boy to leave his friends behind for boarding school. From there, the child's life appears to be a series of downhill moments. First, his father dies not long after his son enrolls. This setback thrusts adulthood on Robin in a way that he is perhaps never entirely quite ready for yet. Still, the blow and the damage is done. He grows up as something of a hollow shell (played by Ewan McGregor). The experience of falling in love with the woman who will become his wife does something to alleviate his problems for a brief amount of time. Then the London Blitz begins, and and the experience of World War II literally shellacs Robin further into his own personal isolation.
The man who returns from the Front is more or less just looking for a hiding place, while trying to balance the genuine affection he feels for his wife and daughter. His current life is a quiet rat-race that oscillates somewhere between The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock and a James Thurber short story. His personal troubles are driving the rift between his family, and as if that weren't enough his work life isn't going so hot, either. In fact, if he doesn't find some way of laying off a certain handful of employees to avoid budget cuts, the suitcase company he works for could go under. As Robin is pondering all these troubles one day on a park bench, he somehow finds himself in a conversation with an old stuffed bear from his childhood. The trouble is all that was just a fantasy he had as a child. There's no way Winnie the Pooh could be real, is there? Christopher Robin is a very strange man.
A Harmless Eccentricity.
Walt Disney first approached the estate of A.A. Milne with idea of adapting the author's character's in 1961. At the time there seemed to be little enthusiasm for their potential being strong enough to carry a feature film. The characters were mainly used as subjects for a series of theatrical short films, roughly an extended equivalent of a Warner Bros. cartoon. To the surprise of everyone, these brief vignettes were popular with audiences. Enough of an imaginative and commercial impact was made so that at least three sequel shorts were made. The first three were later packaged together into The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). From there Milne's characters have become something of a company mascot staple throughout the years. It's not too difficult to run into their images emblazoned on t-shirts, cups, and commemorative stamps.
Perhaps this is also the reason why they seemed to have slipped out of the public consciousness in recent years. The problem with ubiquity is that it's all too easy to forget. This goes double when it comes to issues of market saturation. If you give the audience too much of anything, even a good thing, it becomes very easy to grow tired of the same from one day to the next. The characters are not exactly forgotten, but they do seem to have been relegated to the nursery by both the WDC, and the general public consciousness. It's in this sense that watching Christopher Robin is a lot like going back into that old nursery and making all kinds of discoveries along the way. The first is that it all manages to work surprisingly well, more or less. There may be one or two elements that someone can nitpick here or there. Perhaps the biggest critiques I have revolve around the film's third act. However the criticisms I find myself leveling at this film are surprisingly mild, and it is even possible to find satisfying answers to any misgivings.
I suppose it's debatable about whether or not the introduction of a "Race the Clock" resolution has any place the the Hundred Acre Wood. My own observation is that it all depends on what type of story the viewer has their eye trained on. Those who argue that a chase sequence is out of place are looking at the characters from the perspective of the more sedate tone and pacing of Milne's books. The Disney Version, on the other hand, was quick to introduce a lot of the more conventional narrative devices. The TV series, for instance, would often find the characters confronting situations straight out of epic fantasy (one clear memory I have of that show is the gang trying to keep an out of control train engine from careening off the tracks). Therefore when looked at from the proper perspective the film is aiming at, there is no intrinsic problem with the use of conventional narrative devices for the film's resolution.
This stricture applies as well to the use of Mark Gattis as the film's villain. The criticism revolving around this sort of character and approach to the material is the argument that the Milne characters are more suited to a film which has less of a plot, and is more a series of leisurely happenings, and relaxing events. It has to be remembered that we are dealing with the characters as they were slowly developed by Disney over the years. The film seems to be both a natural follow-up of these developments, while at the same time doing something else as well. I will get to this new twist in the nature of the characters and setting in a minute. For the time being it is enough to note that everything about the characters in the movie is consistent with their prior development.
It has to be remembered that Milne originally built up these figures and their habitat in order to help cope with the traumas of the First World War. The difference between Milne and an author like Tolkien is that Milne's creation seem very much born out of the desire to get away from the turmoil of the blasted heath of Modernism, whereas Tolkien's work always seems oriented toward tackling the harder subject matter head-on. In this regard, the addition of the Mouse House becomes just a bit more interesting for the shades and distinctions they've added to Milne's universe. They've brought a series of rather basic figures and put just bit more flesh here and there on the bones. In Christopher Robin we see that process still at work, and it does take the setup in some interesting, yet familiar directions. Like Tolkien's hobbits, Milne's forest gang can come off as pedestrian at times. This potential fault can be alleviated if you set them against some form or kind of odds that can add an element of dramatic frisson which will help generate an interest in the characters and their plight. It's because of this line of thought that I'm willing to argue that there is nothing about the characters that is inherently against a more straightforward narrative approach involving the resolution of a conflict.
While it is somewhat bemusing to consider that the grand finale of the Pooh series comes down to a riff on the Mexican Stand-off scene from The Office, these moments still never managed to be any kind of deal-breaker for me. It even made at least a bit of sense when you consider scenes like this have their analogues in movies from Walt's tenure of the company. I seem to recall one critic asking if this is the kind of film Walt might have done. My answer is that it is just within the realm of possibility.
There are moments, of course, where the film is trying a bit too hard to drive it's narrative points home. This is best demonstrated by an early scene between Robin and his daughter Madeleine. At one point she asks him if he will read her a bedtime story, and he agrees. It's at this moment the filmmakers decide to sledge-hammer the audience with the message: "Christopher Robin is an annoying old fool". This is the note they are content to strike beat for beat, ad infinitum for at lot of the beginning parts of the film. To be fair, it is just understandable enough to see what they were going for. However, it is in scenes like this where they run the risk of flattening the main character into a cliche that is all just the same one note repeated over and over again. Instead, a helpful suggestion would be that a more productive method of approach could go along the following lines:
Maddie: Do you think you could read to me for a minute?
Robin: ...Of course.
(Robin makes his way to Maddie's book shelf and starts to look for some material. She jumps out of bed and takes down a text)
Maddie (hands over book): Can it be this one?
(Robin takes the book from Maddie and sees it is Poems, in Two Volumes, by William Wordsworth).
Robin (impressed): Good Lord. Darling, where did you get this?
Maddie: I told you I've been doing all my homework.
Robin: Well this isn't homework, this is...(half-chuckle, a hint of pride) this is something else.
Maddie (worried): Is that a bad thing?
Robin (genuinely puzzled): What? (realizing, chuckles) No, of course not, love. Now come on, into bed with ya.
(He helps her get tucked in, then takes a seat beside her).
Robin: Now, what shall it be?
Maddie: I've left bookmark for one that I like quite a lot.
Robin: Well, right then.
(He rifles through book, landing on a page bookmarked Intimations of Immortality. As he begins to read, the background behind him to begins to shift and change...).
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream
The earth, and every common sight,
to me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
(...until he is revealed to be sitting in a grove of trees with sunlight peaking through the branches).
It is not now as it hath been of yore;-
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
(Robin looks up from book. He is shown isolated on forest path in the middle of the woods.
CLOSE UP ON ROBIN AS:
(Intercut between his eyes, scanning woods, and shaking hands. Robin snaps books closed and we are back in):
INT: Maddie's Room - Night.
(Robin looks around, confused, not sure how he got from here to there and back).
Maddie (concerned): Is everything alright?
(Robin, no response, keeps looking round, confused).
(Robin looks at her, bordering on anxiety. He closes book, gets up).
Robin: You know what, I think that's quite enough for one evening.
Maddie: What's wrong?
Robin (in haste): Nothing, it's just late.
Maddie (confused): Daddy?
Robin (leaves room): G'night dear.
(Maddie is left alone as Robin closes door behind him).
This exercise in creative criticism is open to charges of it's own. While it does soften and perhaps elevate the drama of the story by drawing the audience into the character's situation, it is still stuck having to hammer in the same point as the one the filmmakers had to work with. It can be argued that one hammer has been substituted for another, and that, if anything, the new one is even heavier and literal than the one before. The one positive element it has going for it is that it does at least make an attempt to address a strange peculiarity about the film.
There are moments when the narrative seems to try an blur the line between fantasy and reality. One interesting twist is the film's willingness to play with the question of whether the Hundred-Acres are in fact real. There are moments where the film at least hints that they are all just figments of the protagonist's imagination. The clearest indicator may also be the most surreal sequence, involving what may or may not be a dream featuring Pooh and a Heffalump. If I had to take a guess, I wonder if the closest thing to a correct answer is that they are fictional imaginings that have been brought to life by the sheer power of the main character's imaginative capacities. If this doesn't make much sense, then welcome to the club. The irony is that this appears to not be the first time such a trope has been utilized in a work of fiction. There is a TV Tropes plot synopsis of an old Ghostbusters TV episode which reads as follows:
"In an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, the city was visited by two benign ghosts who appeared to be Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and a very Nasty one who appeared to be Professor Moriarty (who eventually conjures up a demonic version of the Hound of the Baskerivilles). Egon at first thought this didn't make sense; as fictional characters, these people were never alive to begin with, and thus could not be ghosts. When it became clear that they were indeed the real deal, he brought up a theory he had read about called "belief made manifest". What this means was, if enough humans believe that a fictitious character is real and has enough fans, it can give the character a pseudo-life, which seems to be what happened (web).
The idea of a fiction coming to half-life on either audiences or creators is a strange concept no matter which angle it's looked at. The trouble is the strangeness that can come from a lack of familiarity does little to blunt the suggestion that the trope of "belief made manifest" does seem to be one of the key devices that is powering the film's narrative. I'm more or less forced to argue that this is the best possible narrative logic behind the proceedings of Christopher Robin. It is this strange, uncertain Alice in Wonderland quality that makes the movie and interesting sort of puzzle. There may some in the audience who will find it all a bit much to go along with. I never really got phased by it. Any film that can set the gears in my head going can sometimes be a good thing as far as I'm concerned. It might be sort of fitting also that the film has this almost Carroll-esque quality to match such a surreal plot setup, as it plays into one of the film's most noticeable strengths.
I said above, earlier, that what Mark Forster has done is to create a hybrid when it comes to this film. This hybrid is the result of taking all or most of the ingredients that have come before in the Milne/Disney films, and refitting them into a new form which manages to honor all that came before it. Perhaps it's this knowledge of both it's cinematic and literary fore-bearers that sort of dictated the nature of the film's story being about a man trying to recall his past. The funny thing about this picture is that there are moments when it seems like it's trying to do some remembering of its own. This comes through in those moments where the film makes an effort to try and recapture the look and feel of a Children's Victorian Storybook. The opening credits themselves are based off the original book illustrations of E.H. Shepard. Later on the forest is presented as something less of a harmless, giant backyard, and more like something out of the Brother's Grimm.
These sorts of moments are interesting and commendable to an extent. The reason why is because it's clear that director Mark Forster is a literate sort who knows a great deal about the material he's working with. Perhaps it is this very familiarity that allows him to understand the source material and it's characters while trying to make it all into an adaptation. At the same time, the adaptation itself in intriguing. It's no real secret that the Disney company managed to put their own stamp on the characters when it came time to adapting the stories. Milne's writings are a product of the Edwardian hangover of World War I, and this is an element that sets the tone and style of the books. The original Disney shorts, by contrast, are both a simplification and expansion of the texts. This is something the studio did once before with The Jungle Book. The difference here is that the Disney-fication of the source material seems to more or less work in the company's favor. It's a little recognized strength of Walt's that he sometimes knew how to either improve on a recalcitrant bit of source material, or that he could at least condense it into a format that would still please audiences. The Winnie the Pooh cartoons seem to be a good demonstration of this particular talent.
What Forster has done in this film is to take both versions of the characters, and combine Disney's and Milne's narratives into a sort of hybrid. This makes Christopher Robin yet a third iteration and riff on these characters. It's to Forster's credit that he is more or less able to pull this off. It's the Disney characters you've known from the past. It's just that now they are in some ways more true to their sources. The result is a film that is always verging on the tip edge of an epic grandeur that it always wants to hint at, while never quite bringing full out into the open. Some may complain about this tactical approach, yet I'm not one of them.
Part of the reason for this is because the narrative strategy is a legit aspect of of the kind of books that A.A. Milne was emulating when he created his own stories. The two or three texts that share the clearest relation to Milne's would be Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows, or Lewis Carroll's two Alice books. Each of these stories contain a simple premise that is somehow able expand in scope until it almost reaches the borderlands of mythology. There are two good examples of this. The first is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter from Willows, where a small emergency in the English countryside is somehow resolved with the interference of the Roman figure of Pan. In that chapter the normally frivolous and satirical tone of the story shifts into something more austere as a figure straight out of myth intrudes on the proceedings, almost to the point where it reads like some sort of strange ceremonial. In Carrol's case, it is in the final chapters of Through the Looking Glass. There are hints that the entire subtext is the main character's coming of age, and accepting adult responsibilities while still trying to buck within the system. I always feel like Carroll had more to tell in those final moments, yet he could never quite get there. His style keeps hinting at a desire to explore wider vistas that remain forever out of reach. This, in essence, is the tone and approach of Forster's picture.
Perhaps it is this reason among all others that allows me to say the film deserves a passing grade. It demonstrates Forster's understanding not just of Milne's books, but also the thematic relations they have in terms of genre and style. He wants to give his audience a glimpse of the Victorian Fantasy milieu from which Milne's narratives emerged, and which acted as his inspiration in the first place. The overall results of this ambition are decent enough, taken in all. In that regard, it sounds like Forster was able to take the best of both worlds and create something that is both perfectly familiar, while also managing to be its own picture.