When I heard that the great Alex Ross Perry was set to pen a screenplay for a Disney live action Winnie the Pooh film, I was taken aback. How could Perry, the indie auteur of such baffling mumblecore films as Queen of Earth and Listen Up Phillip write a movie about the world’s most beloved stuffed bear? In turn, how could Disney possibly bring a live action Hundred Acre Wood to the screen with any shred of reverence?
All reasonable fears aside, Disney’s newest addition to the Pooh & company lore is one of its absolute best. The film is full-to-brimming with the right amount of magic and whimsy that has always made the “silly old bear” loveable without drifting into “hip” territory that would potentially bastardize a perfectly good thing. I’m looking at you Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit.
Much like Paul King’s Paddington 2, Christopher Robin is masterfully executed by great storytellers who relish in their source material rather than apologize for it. For the story and screenplay, Alex Ross Perry is joined by the brilliant team of Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy and Hidden Figures’ Alison Schroeder. The director is Marc Forster, a diverse filmmaker who has brought us a variety of healing and powerful narratives from Finding Neverland to Monster’s Ball to Stranger Than Fiction. Forster was the right choice for the Hundred Acre Wood and, next to the classic Monster’s Ball, Christopher Robin is his greatest achievement.
When I read the original plot description of Christopher Robin, I thought, “So…Hook for millennials?” I am glad I was wrong. Spielberg’s underrated adult Peter Pan-returns-to-Neverland film from 1991 was loud, brash, and explosively colorful. Forster’s adult Christopher Robin-returns-to-Hundred Acre Wood film is quieter, greyer, and gorgeously somber.
Christopher Robin, utilizing pieces of the original musical score from Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (1977) and the charcoal sketchwork of master illustrator Ernest Shepard, tells the story of Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), a typical working class family man living in post-war London. He is married to a wise and beautiful wife, Evelyn (Haley Atwell), and parents an unusually bright and scholarly daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). As the old story typically goes, Christopher becomes so wrapped up in the daily grind of working in his luggage factory that he forgets the importance of rest and play. His family doesn’t recognize him any longer and they leave him to take a vacation in the old Robin family cottage.
Alone in their London home, Christopher encounters Pooh Bear for the first time since his young childhood. Pooh, voiced by the man who has voiced Pooh for over twenty years – Disney stalwart Jim Cummings – becomes a “spirit guide” of sorts to Christopher as he leads him back into the Hundred Acre Wood to encounter old friends and a piece of himself that he lost long ago.
Along the way we encounter bouncy, approval-seeking Tigger (Jim Cummings again), forgetful and verbose Owl (Toby Jones), sweet and anxious Piglet (Nick Mohammed), sassy and depressed Eeyore (Brad Garrett), nervous know-it-all Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), nurturing and bossy Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and the curious and tactless baby Roo (Sara Sheen). Christopher celebrates his return with tea parties featuring loads of honey, by battling the nefarious Heffalumps and Woozles, and by taking time to “do nothing” with his oldest and dearest friend, Winnie-the-Pooh.
It is fitting that this review should be my last for The Stake. As I was driving home from the screening, I turned to my spouse and said, “I think I’m becoming Christopher Robin. I work all day and then come home exhausted and cranky. I eat. I sleep. I wake up and do the whole damn thing over again. I think I’ve forgotten how to play.” I believe that A.A. Milne did not simply write the stories of Pooh only for his young son. Milne created the Hundred Acre Wood with Shepard for himself and adults like us:Adults who, like Tigger, seek far too much approval from our peers.
Adults like Owl who forget important facts but can always find time to steamroll over others with our impressive words.
Adults like Piglet, governed by our anxiety.
Like Eeyore, who can’t figure out how to break free of the constant stream of drowning depression.
Like Rabbit, who can’t stop proving to others how right we always are.
Like Kanga, who love telling others what to do.
And like Roo, curious about life but stating our opinions with very little regard for the feelings of others.
Stuck in our heads, in our jobs, and in the pressures of a society obsessed with schooling, careers, and #adulting, we have forgotten the endless possibilities of imagination. We have forgotten that God gently made us enough exactly as we are, and dammit, if we could just take a breath and relax in that grace and endless love, maybe we could start playing again. Films like Christopher Robin remind us that even though we adults can act like walking dumpster fires masquerading as mindless Twitter machines, we are actually bouncy, sweet, sassy, nurturing, and curious beings who are good for each other and for the world!
Winnie-the-Pooh is a mindful sage for those lost in the panic of their overwhelming lives. In gorgeous autumnal scenery, we watch as Pooh and Christopher Robin sit on a hillside and discuss the art of nothing: “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day,” he says with a sweet smile.
Pooh tells Christopher, as the panicked adult angrily tries to find his way through the wood, “I always get to where I am going by walking away from where I have been.” Too simplistic? Maybe. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t bring me back to some kind of holy center.
Although Christopher is angry and cruel toward Pooh, shaming the innocent voice of his childhood, Pooh finds a way to respond with, “It’s always a sunny day, when Christopher Robin comes to play.” That one made me cry in the theater. Do I actually believe that I’m the kind of person who bring sunny days into our broken world? Pooh believes I am!
There is a scene in which Pooh first appears in London and Christopher Robin is baffled as to how Pooh found his way through a tree stump with no opening. Pooh says, “I suppose it’s where it needs to be.”
“That’s a silly explanation!” reacts Christopher.
“Why, thank you!” replies Pooh through a gentle smile.
I grew up reading Pooh stories and watching the old Disney films, but, this film brought me back to myself. Winnie-the-Pooh is a spirit of grace and compassion inviting us back to the wisdom of play, the wisdom of doing nothing.
Christopher Robin touched my heart and I believe it will touch yours, if you see it with an open heart.
I suppose it’s where it needs to be.
Thank you for a wonderful season at The Stake.
You can find me on Twitter @josiahbullfrog and on Instagram @josiahwasabullfrog.