Sentimentality as thick and sticky-sweet as Winnie the Pooh’s beloved honey coats Christopher Robin, a paean to your inner child that’s so cloying it may tempt you to strangle yours. Occasionally affecting but mostly simplistic and perfunctory, this children’s film, which imagines what would happen if the titular boy grew up and had an uneasy reunion with his old pals at the Hundred Acre Wood, feels like a pretty uninspired way for Disney to recycle some of its intellectual property. Pooh and his buddies are merely supporting players, and their adventures with Christopher wheeze with forced slapstick and strained whimsy. Oh, bother.
Taking a page from Hook, Steven Spielberg’s family film about Robin Williams as a grownup Peter Pan loaded down with adult responsibilities, Finding Neverland director Marc Forster opens his film in Pooh’s magical woods as the young Christopher says goodbye to his chums, ready to leave the world of make-believe behind. Flash-forward about 35 years: It’s postwar London, and now Christopher (Ewan McGregor) works as an efficiency manager at a luggage company. Times are tough, and Christopher has been tasked to figure out how to implement deep budget cuts, which will almost certainly mean that many employees will lose their jobs. Christopher is given the upcoming weekend to finalize his report, and so he has to pull out of a relaxing vacation with his long-suffering wife (Hayley Atwell) and adoring young daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).
This emotionally manipulative setup couldn’t be more generic: Harried father and husband has forgotten how to stop and smell the roses because of his gosh-darn job. But in a sign of Christopher Robin’s indifferent execution, even the film’s premise is wobbly. It’s not that Christopher actually really loves his work—it’s just that he’s been forced to make these difficult decisions on a short deadline, lest the bosses dictate even harsher cutbacks on their own. As a result, Christopher mostly just seems like a pushed-around wimp, and so his wife and daughter’s disappointment doesn’t seem entirely fair. If he just sloughed off his responsibilities, he’d be a pretty terrible employee.
Unfortunately, Christopher Robin (which has three credited screenwriters and two separate story writers) bludgeons us with this notion that Christopher needs to reconnect with his happy boyhood once Winnie the Pooh (voiced by longtime Pooh actor Jim Cummings) makes his way from the Hundred Acre Wood to London thanks to a magical tree portal. As a kid, Christopher promised his best friend that he’d never forget him, but time, distance and circumstance have changed Christopher, and while he’s surprised to see the talking teddy bear, he’s not entirely pleased, mostly because he has to focus on his work. Naturally, Pooh, the so-called “bear of very little brain,” can’t understand why Christopher has lost his sense of play, dragging his old pal back to the woods to help locate Eeyore, Piglet and the rest of the crew.
Author A. A. Milne and illustrator E. H. Shepard’s iconic creations are rendered digitally in Christopher Robin, and Forster’s vision of Hundred Acre Wood recalls Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, which captured the delicacy of a child’s imagination by crafting a world that felt fantastical but yet grounded in live-action reality. Christopher Robin can only echo Jonze’s achievement, though, as the film doesn’t display much wit or pathos. Instead, Forster settles for cutesy: Much of the humor derives from Christopher’s growing frustration at his adorable, naïve companions, and the film tends to telegraph all its teachable moments, hammering home the same points again and again.
At 47, McGregor still exudes a boyish enthusiasm that makes it easy to see how Christopher will, eventually, get back in touch with his unbridled joy. (As the character starts to shed his stuffy demeanor, the actor’s warm smile while hanging out with Pooh may be the film’s best feature.) But because Christopher Robin is such a straight, square piece of entertainment—no smart-ass irreverence to be found here—McGregor can’t really cut loose. This translates to Christopher being a bit of a drip: You can see why the guy ended up an efficiency manager.
Unfortunately, Christopher’s fuzzy associates aren’t much better company. In small doses, Pooh’s clumsy, sweet obliviousness can be delightful, but the filmmakers turn him into a dopey doofus whose shenanigans quickly grow tiresome. Obviously, Pooh’s childlike guilelessness is meant to be a tonic in Christopher’s callous, fast-paced world, and the innocent vulnerability in Cummings’ voice can be touching. But the character isn’t especially compelling—even those of us who might feel some strong nostalgic stirrings from seeing Pooh on the big screen will likely be underwhelmed by Forster’s blah depiction.
As for Tigger and the rest, Brad Garrett does a decent job voicing the eternally fatalistic Eeyore, who gets in a few choice one-liners as the film’s resident Debbie Downer. But by and large, all of the Hundred Acre Wood’s denizens are merely here to help speed along Christopher’s predictable change of heart.
Very rarely do you get the sense that anyone involved in Christopher Robin had a really strong take on the material or an innate understanding of why these characters have resonated for nearly a century. Forster seems to have crafted his film mostly for kids, but he doesn’t show his audience much respect. Winnie the Pooh speaks to our shared need for kindness, creativity and imagination—the Hundred Acre Wood is that unsullied place inside ourselves that remains optimistic and curious, no matter what life throws at us. Such openheartedness is in short supply in Christopher Robin—it’s not a cynical film, but it knows nothing of wonder or magic.
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Alex Ross Perry and Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder (screenplay); Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson (story); A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard (characters)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Bronte Carmichael
Release Date: August 3, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.