Oh Bother!: Disney's Christopher Robin in limbo between dewy-eyed innocence-lost and wannabe family fare

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C-plus

If kids cared about the mid-life crises of adults who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, Hook would be the most beloved of all Robin Williams’ movies.

But they don’t. Do NOT buy into the ads that make Disney’s Christopher Robin look like the family film of the year. It may make overworked adults verklemt, but it also may bore children stupid.

The live-action Christopher Robin – which does feature some very charming scenes with Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and company in the Hundred Acre Wood – is the second movie in a year that deals with a conflicted, grown up Christopher Robin (the first being Goodbye Christopher Robin, the actual story of how A.A. Milne created Pooh and inadvertently turned his own son into the world’s first child star against his will).

An uptight, adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) gets reacquainted with Pooh.

An uptight, adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) gets reacquainted with Pooh.

And that conflicted man is a downer indeed. As the movie opens, young Christopher is saying goodbye to his friends as he prepares to leave for boarding school (“Boring school” as the malaprop-prone Pooh calls it). When we see him again, he’s an office manager (played by Ewan McGregor) at an elite luggage-making company that is experiencing hard times because of the War (WWII in this case).

Things being as they are, Christopher is tasked by his uncaring boss (Mark Gatiss) with coming up with a 25% cut in expenses over a weekend, or see his friends and workmates cut loose en masse.

So there goes another weekend with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and his adoring but constantly disappointed daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), this one to have been spent at the very same family country house where the young Christopher had once protected his friends from wuzzles and heffalumps. It seems to be a marriage-risking cancellation.

All this represents a rather large chunk of movie, that short opening scene being the sum total of the movie’s enchantment to this point.

Is there an existential connection between a disenchanted Christopher Robin and Pooh? The movie hints as much, because no sooner does Evelyn storm out of the house with Madeline, than Pooh wakes up to find all his friends gone, and enters a hole in a tree that transports him to London.

This is a family-length movie (104 minutes). So, the entire process of the adult Christopher coming face to face with a talking teddy of his youth, Pooh wreaking havoc at Chez Robin in search of honey, and Christopher deducing that Pooh must be returned to the wood so he, Christopher, can get back to work, seems awkwardly speeded up.

The train trip and its comic set pieces (Pooh, passive-aggressively demands a balloon. Christopher at one point must steal Pooh back from a toddler) reminds less of House at Pooh Corner than it does a cleaned-up version of the movie Ted.

Indeed, after taking its time for so long, the events of the last act seem hurried as if all involved have heffalumps at their heels. 

Madeline and Evelyn both separately accept the existence of talking plush animals in due course, and there’s a race to get Christopher’s actuarial papers to him in time to save everyone’s jobs. Animals and papers are flung about in a series of antic pratfalls and incidents, but rest assured, a blow is struck for the little guy. (It’s inside baseball to find it funny that Disney is the company giving us the message that work should take a backseat to family life. But a former exec, Jeffrey Katzenberg, did supposedly say, “If you’re not willing to show up on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday”).

All that said, the voice acting is top-notch. Jim Cummings has put in 40 years as Pooh and nearly 20 as Tigger (voices he inherited from Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell respectively), and deep-voiced Brad Garrett seems to have been born to voice Eeyore.

And the writing (by three scripters and two story-writers), in those moments when the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood have room to breathe, is on point (“Such a gloomy day,” Pooh says, looking for his friends. “Eeyore would love it.” Among other Pooh-isms: “I always get to where I'm going by walking away from where I've been.”)

As a movie for adults, Christopher Robin has rewards, but needn’t have been so antic. The schmaltz would have sufficed. As a movie for children, well…

Christopher Robin. Directed by Marc Forster. Starring Ewan McGregor, Hayley Attwell and Jim Cummings (voice). Opens wide Friday, August 3.