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Christopher Robin

Last year, we got a movie called Goodbye, Christopher Robin. It was a biopic about A.A. Milne and his son — the real Christopher Robin — who inspired the book that Milne famously wrote. The younger Milne’s life would become torturous in the years that followed, as jealous children and adoring fans couldn’t make any distinction between the fictional Christopher Robin and the very real boy of the same name. Christopher Robin later enlisted to join the battlefields of WWII, where — according to the film — he finally got to appreciate firsthand what joy his old childhood toys brought to the world and how it helped so many through dark times.

Conveniently, the movie never mentioned how Christopher Robin went on to marry Lesley de Sélincourt — his own first cousin! — and opened a bookstore in Dartmouth. Shortly after the passing of his father, Christopher Robin saw the birth of his daughter, Claire Milne, who was born with cerebral palsy (possibly due to the inbreeding, but that’s just my guess). He was estranged from his mother for the rest of her life, and refused all royalties from Winnie the Pooh. Christopher Robin died in 1996 of a chronic neuromuscular disorder, and Claire — who went on to lead many charitable campaigns against cerebral palsy — passed away in 2012.

Got all that? Good. None of that has any relevance toward today’s movie. Because — and this is a very important distinction — Christopher Robin is about the later years of the FICTIONAL Christopher Robin, not the REAL one. As if any major studio would have the guts to address how the namesake of this beloved childhood icon went and freaking married his first cousin, and heaven forbid that anyone should come to the Hundred Acre Wood with cerebral palsy. But I digress.

The first few minutes of this movie take us through the early years of a strange kind of “parallel universe” Christopher Robin (played by Orton O’Brien before growing into Ewan McGregor). Here’s a Christopher Robin who really did have adventures playing with Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, and all the rest… except that his father never wrote about them and Christopher Robin went on to enjoy a perfectly normal childhood without the burdens and blessings of celebrity status. This fictional Christopher Robin still got sent to boarding school at age nine and he still fought in the war, but his father passed away a good twenty years earlier while Christopher Robin himself was still a boy. Also, this Christopher Robin did not go to start a bookstore after the war, but found work pushing papers for the Winslow Luggage company.

And of course, Christopher Robin found love with a total stranger named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), then the two of them got married and had a perfectly healthy daughter named Madeline (played primarily by Bronte Carmichael).

The basic thrust of the plot is that Christopher Robin has grown into a workaholic who’s totally forgotten what it’s like to play, he neglects his wife and daughter, so now he has to learn how to stop worrying and remember what it was like to be a kid, blah blah blah. This is totally boilerplate stuff we’ve seen too many times before, and it seems especially tone-deaf in a time when so many of us have to work around the clock just to keep our heads above water. And yet that’s kinda why this particular approach works.

This movie plays up the modern “class inequality” aspect, with Mark Gatiss helping to make it absolutely goddamn clear that Christopher Robin’s boss is a rich pompous asshole who’s never worked a day in his life and he’d sacrifice every last employee in the company just to save his own ass and are you getting the point yet? Here, let me get out my megaphone, BECAUSE HE’S A RICH ASSHOLE, YOU SEE, ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY SURE YOU GET THAT?!

Then there’s the other side of the equation, which is equally important: All the workers who answer to Christopher Robin. It’s their livelihoods that are on the line if Christopher Robin can’t cut enough expenses to save their jobs. So our protagonist isn’t just spending all of his time at work for money or whatever, he’s going to all of this trouble because there are so many other people depending on him. Yes, his wife and daughter need him, but there are other people who need him just as badly, all just as desperate to keep on working as hard as they can lest the indifferent Powers That Be find some excuse to cast them aside. It was very smart of the movie to focus on that, even going so far as to give the other workers just enough development to register as actual people. And it was especially smart of the filmmakers to resolve this central crisis in a clever way that carries a directly populist message, rather than seeing Christopher Robin throw all his professional responsibilities to the wind with no consequences.

But of course, all of this is beside what we really came here for.

This time, Winnie the Pooh is voiced by Jim Cummings, because duh. That’s like Kevin Conroy voicing Batman or Peter Cullen voicing Optimus Prime: such a blindingly obvious and long-established choice that no audience would ever accept anyone else in the role. Cummings also stepped in to voice Tigger, reportedly after test audiences rejected the initial voice performance from Chris O’Dowd. Good call, that one.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Brad Garrett getting a lot of laughs as Eeyore, Toby Jones voicing Owl, Peter Capaldi as the voice of Rabbit, and Nick Mohammed as Piglet, with Sophie Okonedo and Sara Sheen respectively voicing Kanga and Roo. In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, every single voice actor in this picture was perfectly cast. I was also a fan of the characters’ designs, as Rabbit and Owl look like nicely photorealistic — but not quite too realistic — live animals while all the others look like well-used and well-loved stuffed animals.

Speaking of which, there’s a lengthy sequence in which Christopher Robin is walking along with Winnie the Pooh, but it’s hard to see the smaller character through all the fog and the underbrush. So the filmmakers contrived a way to give Pooh a red balloon so we could keep track of him and the filmmakers could save a bit on the CGI budget. That was really quite clever and very effective.

With all of that out of the way, there’s a very simple reason why the movie works as well as it does: At its heart and core, this is a movie about Christopher Robin rediscovering his inner child, remembering how to play at make-believe, and learning just how needlessly complicated adult life is. And if you want something that perfectly encapsulates childhood, simplicity, and imagination, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more effective symbol than the Hundred Acre Woods crew.

Furthermore, so what if the plot is simple? The whole movie is a call to simplicity! This is one of those movies that are so defiantly innocent, that so blatantly reject any kind of cynicism, that the audience would feel like a total jerk calling the filmmakers on it and so the filmmakers draw the audience into that childlike state of mind. It’s not every filmmaker who can do that without coming off as pretentious, but director Marc Forster does a phenomenal job, aided at every step by a spirited performance from Ewan McGregor.

And again, this is Winnie the Pooh we’re talking about. The mellow, laid-back, aimless nature of the character is a central part of the appeal. It makes perfect sense to have a low-key plot with intimately personal stakes and a minimum of wacky hijinks (mostly provided by the hyperactive Tigger and confined to the climax) because that’s all perfectly in keeping with the tone of the franchise.

When Disney started their recent trend of producing live-action remakes of well-established classics (see: Alice in Underland, Maleficent, Cinderella (2015), etc.), they were clearly repackaging and reselling the most iconic and merchandisable aspects of each respective film. When that got to be too transparent, Disney set out to modernize the old stories for a more jaded and cynical 21st-century audience. This movie is no different, but it succeeds where Pete’s Dragon (2016) worked so well, and also where The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) both failed: Jungle Book tried to inject pathos, suspense, and photo-realistic animals into their movie while also keeping the upbeat musical numbers; as Beauty and the Beast haphazardly tried to update the feminist themes and answer questions nobody was asking in a way that only opened up more plot holes.

All four of these movies — Christopher Robin, Pete’s Dragon (2016), The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017) — are about the magical interacting with the mundane. But the failures made the magical mundane, while the successes brought magic to the mundane. Christopher Robin and Pete’s Dragon are both such wonderfully effective movies because of how they introduce fantasy elements into our modern grungy world, and make our world a brighter place for it. That’s far more uplifting and entertaining than, say, introducing a magic book that could teleport anyone literally anywhere just so the filmmakers could answer questions about Belle’s mother that nobody ever asked.

(Side note: Yes, Christopher Robin takes place in 1950s postwar England, but it’s a setting clearly built to reflect our own modern reality. My point stands.)

The music is also lovely, with the iconic Sherman Brothers theme artfully used by composers Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion. But the real star here is the legendary grandmaster Richard Sherman himself, who composed three new songs for this movie and performs one of them himself in a mid-credits cameo appearance.

(Side note: For those just tuning in, Richard Sherman and his late brother Robert were basically to the Disney Golden Age what Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were to the ’90s Renaissance. They composed “Let’s Get Together” for The Parent Trap, the entire Mary Poppins soundtrack, “It’s a Small World” and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for Disneyland… basically, if it’s an iconic Disney song that was written while Walt Disney himself was still alive, the Sherman Brothers probably wrote it.)

With all of that said, I’ve heard this called one of the year’s best movies so far, and I don’t agree. The plot is heavily reliant on flimsy contrivances, and there’s an annoying neighbor character who’s entirely useless. But most of all, I prefer to bestow the title of “year’s best” on something with a lot more heft. This movie doesn’t try to push any boundaries or blow any minds as I expect a true masterpiece to do. And if the filmmakers had even tried to do any of that, it would have been a worse movie for it.

Christopher Robin is an inconsequential trifle of a crowd-pleaser, as I would typically expect of the awkward post-summer pre-Oscar season. But because this is a movie about Winnie the Pooh — perhaps the most iconic and beloved of inconsequential crowd-pleasing trifles — it all works beautifully. Of course it also helps that the performances are wonderful across the board, Forster’s direction is incredible in its subtlety, and the CGI animation is superbly realized. Best of all, this is a picture that never tries to be PG-13, never tries to be the biggest or loudest or funniest, and is content to simply be a cute little picture for all the family to enjoy.

I kind of hate that the critical praise has gotten to be so huge, because there’s precious little about this movie that was designed to be huge. So let me say without any attempt at overhyping that this is absolutely a good movie, well worth checking out.

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