Saturday, August 4, 2018


What happened to Christopher Robin after he grew too old for his imaginary friends in the Hundred Acre Wood? We've gotten along fine until now just keeping him in perpetual childhood, AA Milne's books and Disney's animated shorts, shows, and films (as recently as 2011's fine iteration) poking along with Winnie the Pooh and his menagerie of pals. Robin grew up, though, we're told in the opening scenes of Christopher Robin, which take him quickly and elegantly from boarding school to adulthood (Ewan McGregor) in a flash, then to an encounter with a lovely woman (Hayley Atwell) he weds and with whom he has a daughter, before enlisting in World War II. Then the story proper begins in post-war London, with Robin a harried business man sadly staring down a stack of paperwork while his family leaves on their vacation without him. Here is where Pooh comes in. Awoken with a breeze of reminiscence and imagination, the silly old bear stumbles out of a tree and into London where he quickly recognizes his old friend. Robin, of course, is frazzled as he tries to get Pooh back to the woods of childhood imagination where he belongs. If the basic shape of the film starts to sound familiar, it's because it travels the same route taken by every story of a workaholic dad reconnecting with the magic of youth and restoring a proper work-life balance. The benefits here are that it involves intellectual property for which its owners can exploit tremendous cross-generational nostalgic value. When the realistic CG stuffed animal speaks in the voice of Jim Cummings' instantly recognizable soft, sweet, gentle Pooh, the heart strings are set to tugging. Yes, one thinks, this stumbly, bumbly bear is just the cure dour Robin needs in his life.

If I may be cynical for a moment, it's interesting to note Disney's project of making live-action entertainments out of their animated classics has reached a film that, at least in part, serves as self-justification. Reconnect with the Disney characters of your past in a new context and it'll save your relationship, your job, your kids, and your happiness, just like it does Christopher Robin, who goes from slumping with a briefcase and sad eyes to trotting through the forest with a spring in his step and a sparkle in his expression. This is the easy read of the film's derivative plot mechanics, but the film itself is entirely too pleasant and lovely to bear out such grim mercenary takes too thoroughly.  No, instead the screenwriters -- the unlikely trio of Alex Ross Perry (of prickly indies like The Color Wheel), Tom McCarthy (of smooth, talky dramas like Spotlight), and Allison Schroeder (her major credit a glossy crowd-pleaser, Hidden Figures) -- are clearly invested in the pure childlike whimsy and literate mid-century pleasures of Winnie the Pooh, updating the world around Robin without sacrificing an ounce of the original characters' innocent naïveté, their simpleness that backs up into plain-spoken wisdom. By the time the ensemble includes Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, and the rest, it has all the gentle warmth of a satisfying afternoon reunion, stretched out, poky, taking its time, slow but in a charming and loving way. The story -- a journey there and back again, when you get right down to it -- hardly gets in the way of spending time with old friends. Director Marc Forster calls upon some of his Finding Neverland matter-of-fact metaphorical interplay with fantasy and reality, shooting the wholly convincing CG toys -- shaggy and faded from years of outdoor play -- and their forest world with the same casualness that he treats the period settings and hustle-bustle in London. It works. It may be small, simple, and sentimental, but then again, so is Pooh. That's enough to warm the heart in all the right places. 

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