The Reel Review: "Christopher Robin" Is A Storybook Adaptation For Grown-Ups
Over the years, cinema has played host to many niche film trends, but none more surprising than the current love for anthropomorphic bear movies. From the whimsical and life-affirming Paddington and Paddington 2 to the dark and candid biopic Becoming Christopher Robin, there’s been noticeable resurgence of interest in the polite English bears of our childhood, as well as the real-life people who brought them about. Aside from their fuzzy subject matter and unmistakable British sensibility, these movies are also similar in their target audience, which skews older than you might expect.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty in Disney’s Christopher Robin for children to enjoy. The CGI renderings of Winnie the Pooh’s woodland friends are adorable, as soft and as scruffy as the most well-loved toy, with voices so cutesy that they are just one giggle away from saccharine. They alone are enough to keep toddlers enthralled, while the few inner-city action scenes and slapstick sequences are sure to keep older children entertained. With that said, everything from the plot to the visuals to the humor seems aimed at an adult audience – perhaps because they are the group who need the small yellow bear the most.
As for the story, it follows a quasi-fictional Christopher Robin through his early life and into middle age, watching as he grows up and leaves the Hundred Acre woods behind. Some events are lifted straight from the life of the real Christopher Robin, the son of the author who then became the starring character, but while the real Christopher grew up to resent the bear, Ewan McGregor’s portrayal merely forgets him. Christopher did indeed go to boarding school and fight in the second world war, but it is there that the story diverges, sending a returned Christopher to work at a fictional luggage company where he is tasked with cutting costs.
Christopher’s job is all-encompassing and relatably ironic – he is forced to skip his family holiday to get the company’s profit margin under control, a company that is failing to sell suitcases since everybody else is too busy working to go on vacation, too. Meanwhile, Pooh wakes up from a decades-long hibernation to find the woods gloomy, his honey stash depleted and his friends all missing, and resolves to find Christopher Robin, the only one who can save the day. Sounds light-hearted enough, but the camera work says otherwise, panning through fog-wreathed trees, broken bridges and abandoned cottages in a sequence that would be more at home in a horror flick than a Disney movie.
Things don’t cheer up when Pooh and Christopher are reunited, either. London is as gray as the woods, and even Pooh’s most adorable hijinks cannot shake his best friend out of his trudging cynicism. Flashes of joy are as fleeting as a red balloon floating along a train platform, or a game of ‘Say What You See’ that only just about gets a smile. Even when Christopher agrees to go back to the woods for one last adventure, it culminates in a truly nightmarish sequence where the storybook monsters of the woods come to life, only this time they’re him. Unable to deal with Pooh’s bumbling ways, Christopher banishes him into the mist, hitting rock bottom both literally and figuratively when he falls into a Woozle and Heffalump trap.
It is only when Christopher commits to saving his childhood friends and thus his childhood that the barest hint of sun can be seen above the trees, but even that is not enough. He saves a characteristically morose Eeyore easily enough, but the donkey only sees him as a monster, and goes along with his kidnapping in the fatalist way only he can make charming. The same goes for Piglet, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo too: in their eyes Christopher is unrecognisable, and only redeemed when he fights himself in the woods, which they see as him fighting a Woozle, and emerges victorious. Is the metaphor a little heavy-handed? Possibly, but it’s also deeply poignant.
From there the narrative flips: Christopher leaves the woods a changed man, but leaves something important behind, causing the gang to venture into the real world and rescue him for once. They enter a London that seems brighter, lighter and less soul-crushing, both thanks to their presence and some brilliant comic moments, chiefly curtesy of CGI-bear movie veteran and English darling Simon Farnaby. This gives Christopher’s daughter Madeline (played by Bronte Carmichael) time to shine in a surprisingly layered and nuanced performance, but the action with the highest stakes plays out in the boardroom. A newly-plucky Ewan McGregor is left to face off against his oozingly unpleasant boss, played with pitch-perfect stuffy Englishness by Sherlock and Doctor Who star and writer Mark Gatiss.
In short, there’s a reason this adaption is called Christopher Robin and not Winnie The Pooh, and it’s not just to stop it from being confused with the many iterations that have come before. This isn’t the story of a small boy saving his imaginary friend, it’s about the imaginary friend saving the day once the boy is all grown up. It’s about the ease with which we forget how to play, and how we forget at our peril. In a world where mindfulness and self-care are buzzwords used to sell whatever scented candle or bath bomb is currently on trend, Christopher Robin is a reminder of what we truly need to slow down and recapture, and how a little yellow bear will be there to help us along should we forget it again.