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Ewan McGregor plays a grown-up Christopher Robin.

Laurie Sparham/Disney

  • Christopher Robin
  • Directed by: Marc Forster
  • Written by: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder, Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson
  • Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell and Jim Cummings
  • Classification: PG; 104 minutes

rating

The fortune of many a contemporary media business rests on a good stock of intellectual property. For Walt Disney Studios, that means everything from Mickey Mouse to Star Wars – plus all those princesses. And let’s not forget A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

Disney’s gazillion-dollar version of the silly old bear may be mainly remembered as a flat and saccharine cartoon, but the studio has hauled him out from the back of the closet, dusted him off and submitted him to the now-standard live-action treatment for children’s classics: Animate the animals with a CGI realism a previous generation never dreamed possible and darken the storytelling to suit knowing contemporary tastes. From Disney’s impressive remake of The Jungle Book to Tim Burton’s unpleasantly hallucinogenic take on Alice in Wonderland, the results have been surprisingly scary. Of course, nobody is going to turn the honey-loving bear-of-little-brain into a cynic or a depressive, but Disney has found a heavy counterweight for the stuffed animal in an adult version of Christopher Robin.

Played by a suitably fatigued Ewan McGregor, who we can safely assume is being well-paid to be patient with a one-step character progression, this grown-up Christopher is a sad-sack workaholic who needs to rediscover the joy of life. He achieves this by reconnecting with his old childhood companions, efficiently recreated as animated versions of stuffed toys. With Hayley Atwell playing Christopher’s sweet and sensible wife, Evelyn, and Jim Cummings, who has been voicing various animated remakes since the 1990s, evoking the familiar Disney Pooh, the project produces an anodyne story tastefully executed. No, Christopher Robin is not a naked cash grab, just a prettily clothed one.

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This pained adult Christopher Robin, by the way, should not be confused with the protagonist of Goodbye Christopher Robin, the recent biopic about the unhappy life of the real C.R. Milne, whose childhood was so thoughtlessly exploited by his parents. That film tried desperately to pull an uplifting ending out of a sorrowful situation: Milne was teased mercilessly about his father’s books once he went off to school and was often estranged from his parents during adulthood.

Piglet, Pooh, Rabbit, Roo, Kanga, Tigger and Eeyore in Disney's Christopher Robin.

Disney

Disney’s Christopher, meanwhile, is a wholly fictional character, whose last name is Robin, and whose father dies, rather conveniently, when he’s just a boy. His entire back story, including parting with his animals to attend boarding school, service in the Second World War and marriage to the lovely Evelyn, are recounted in an opening sequence in which the scenes flip by alongside illustrations reminiscent of E.H. Shepard’s fondly remembered pictures from the original books. That pretty effect has exhausted itself long before we get to Mr. Robin’s arrival at the luggage factory where he now heads up the efficiency department.

There, he needs to come up with a scheme that will drastically cut expenses without laying off his loyal staff, so has to skip a long-promised weekend in the country with his increasingly disgruntled wife and daughter (Bronte Carmichael). Thankfully, Pooh magically appears in London and lures Mr. Robin back to the Hundred Acre Wood – before following him to London where, after a madcap chase through the grimy streets of the capital, the stuffed animals help him save the luggage factory.

Set just after the war, there’s a metaphor here somewhere for the resurgence of colour and joy in the postwar world, an idea largely explained by a postscript set at the seaside. That’s not the visual impact of the film, however. Instead, what’s memorable is the insistence of director Marc Forster, cinematographer Matthias Koenigsweiser and the film’s art directors on the post-Blitz greyness of London, not to mention the magical endurance of the somewhat forbidding Hundred Acre Wood. In this dark scheme, the idea that the animals have all been waiting for the boy’s return for the past 30 years seems crushingly sad while, over in the adult world, the film’s happy ending feels forced.

Apparently, even Disney is hard-pressed to extract joy from the problematic notion that Christopher Robin had to grow up.

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