Did we really need the studio behind the “Star Wars” relaunch to make a movie telling middle-aged men to stay close to their childhood toys? That’s the underlying message of “Christopher Robin,” a partially live-action sequel to the lovely “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons that’s a colossal disappointment on many levels.
It’s a slow, sluggish and whimsy-deficient movie that seems designed to entertain neither children nor adults, and the film’s script opens a Pandora’s Box of a plot twist (more on that in a moment) that that narrative then brushes off. And while many people admitted to weeping from the trailers, the final movie never packs the emotional punch that should be inherent to the material.
What we’re left with is a “Hook”-style mid-life crisis movie aimed at kids, designed to shame parents who spend too much time at the office and not enough with their families. (Could someone maybe make a movie that addresses the fact that people are working harder than ever, often at multiple jobs, to feed, clothe and house their families in an era of stagnant wages? And if that means missing some little-league games, maybe we can cut mom and dad a break?)
“Christopher Robin” marks the latest of the ongoing Disney remakes of its animated classics, and the best parts of the film involve computer-generated versions of Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Tigger (Cummings), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Roo (Sara Sheen) going about their business in the Hundred Acre Wood. But this is 2018, and, oh bother, that means a kids’ movie has to have a car chase in Act 3.
The film begins the way A.A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner” ends, with young Christopher Robin going off to boarding school. We see him finish his studies and fight in World War II, and by the time he’s played by Ewan McGregor, he has fallen in love with and then married Evelyn (Hayley Atwell). Jumping ahead a few years, Christopher is now a middle manager at a luggage company, pouring himself into dreary drudgery and neglecting his loving daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael, “Darkest Hour), who is herself at the age where she’s about to be sent away to school.
Christopher has to renege on a weekend in the country with his family because of a work deadline, but then his old friend Pooh arrives in London, needing Christopher’s help in finding all his friends. This leads Christopher back to his childhood home, clutching his briefcase and bumbershoot all the while, as he revisits his old stomping grounds and comes to appreciate the imaginative world of his youth.
Story-wise, that’s an interesting way to revisit this character, but then “Christopher Robin” takes a massive misstep from which it never recovers: Pooh and company aren’t just metaphors for Christopher’s childhood that only he can see and hear – everyone else can hear them talking, too. Which means that Christopher Robin didn’t just abandon his childhood toys; he neglected living, breathing, sentient, honey-eating creatures that also happen to be stuffed animals. (It’s like “Ted” if the Mark Wahlberg character knew the bear was alive but kept it stuffed in a closet for 25 years anyway.)
The animation of the toys is lovely, but once they start talking to Madeline, to Evelyn and to random cab drivers, it’s not clear what this movie is supposed to mean or even in what universe it’s set. The film had already suffered from sluggish pacing, but this strange turn — in a screenplay credited to three acclaimed writers, with two more receiving story credit — undermines the entire enterprise. (In this case, a horse designed by committee winds up being a Heffalump.)
Yes, the period details are spot-on, Jon Brion and Geoff Zanelli’s score is charming without being overbearing, and the cinematography by Matthias Koenigswieser (“All I See Is You”) ties together gloomy London and the lush countryside with a warm vintage sheen, but these parts are greater than the whole.
If you missed Disney’s last dip into Milne — the 2011 animated feature “Winnie the Pooh,” sacrificed by the studio opposite a “Harry Potter” opening weekend and also featuring Cummings’ voice — it’s sweet and moving and beautiful and an all-ages delight. It’s everything that “Christopher Robin” isn’t.