Toward the end of A.A. Milne’s 1928 book “The House at Pooh Corner,” Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang throw a party for their friend Christopher Robin, bidding him a fond farewell before he leaves them for boarding school. That bittersweet gathering takes place in the opening moments of the new Disney live-action fantasy “Christopher Robin,” preparing us for a stirring tale of sad partings and overdue reunions. It also prepares us for the recurring image of human actors effortlessly sharing the screen with sentient digital plush toys.
But once the scene has ended and young Christopher (Orton O’Brien) has vanished through the door in the tree that will take him back home to his family’s East Sussex cottage, the story quickly charts its own peculiar, vaguely Milne-adjacent terrain. Many stiff upper lips and a pesky world war later, Christopher has grown up to be a husband, father and London businessman played by Ewan McGregor, well cast as an adult who long ago put away childish things and who now must learn the importance of taking them out again.
Not to be confused with last year’s Milne biopic “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” this sweetly amusing concoction falls into a small subgenre of pictures that use the trappings of children’s fantasy for the dubious purpose of illuminating a man’s midlife crisis. You could describe them, less kindly, as elaborate exercises in regression therapy, or as sequels we didn’t really ask for. Steven Spielberg’s 1991 misfire, “Hook,” starring Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan, is a memorably unfortunate example of the trend.
But not, happily, a definitive one. As directed with a soft, pleasing touch by Marc Forster from a polished script by Oscar winner Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), the independent filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (“Golden Exits”) and Oscar nominee Allison Schroeder (“Hidden Figures”), “Christopher Robin” finds ways to distinguish itself within its generic confines. In the annals of movies featuring humans and critters, it may not scale the sublime heights of “Paddington,” but it also avoids the noxious lows of “Peter Rabbit.” And as a meticulously engineered product of the Walt Disney Co., it fulfills its cultural and commercial obligations by tapping, and renewing, a deep reservoir of affection for its source material.
Disney has returned to this particular honey pot over the years with reliable, sometimes desperate-looking consistency, casting Pooh in TV series, video games and a charmingly retro 2011 film. Notably, the Pooh we meet in “Christopher Robin” is a computer-generated puppet rather than the hand-drawn, yellow-orange fluff ball beloved by classic animation fans. Indeed, with his realistically matted, muted brown fur, his melancholy half-smile and his indisputably English roots, he bears (ahem) more of a resemblance to the Pooh from E.H. Shepard’s classic illustrations, which are lovingly referenced throughout.
Still, the crowd-pleasing Disney stamp is as unmistakable as the gently high-pitched “Oh, bother” supplied by the gifted voice actor Jim Cummings (who also does the bouncy-trouncy honors as Tigger). Years after saying goodbye to Christopher Robin — and long after you might have expected him to succumb to a diabetic coma — this older, sadder Pooh is still gorging himself on honey in the Hundred Acre Wood. He shares it (the wood, not the honey) with his friends Tigger and Piglet, plus Rabbit and Owl, Kanga and Roo and, happily for us if not for him, Eeyore (Brad Garrett, a gloomily perfect ensemble standout).
In the annals of movies featuring humans and critters, it may not scale the sublime heights of ‘Paddington,’ but it avoids the noxious lows of ‘Peter Rabbit.’
They all get along as splendidly as ever, their woodland harmony disrupted only by the occasional reported sighting of Heffalumps and Woozles. But then one day Pooh’s pals go missing, perhaps swallowed up by a mysterious gray fog that has descended on the forest; consciously or not, it’s a lovely, somber metaphor for the impermanence of memory. Certain that only Christopher Robin can save the day, Pooh makes use of a little magic and a little logic (“I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been”) and soon arrives in his old friend’s London home, where much comic chaos involving spilt honey and shattered crockery ensues.
Pooh’s unexpected visit coincides with an especially busy work weekend for Christopher, whose long-suffering wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and their bright young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), have retreated to the family’s East Sussex cottage. They’re used to being neglected by Daddy, who devotes all his energy to the needs of a London luggage company that’s facing cutbacks in a new era of postwar austerity.
But in short order, Christopher is forced to put work aside, whisk Pooh back to the Hundred Acre Wood and help find their old friends. Forster gets deft comic mileage out of all the mischief that a walking, talking stuffed bear can cause on a busy train ride, especially when his mortified human caretaker is desperately trying to avoid discovery. The raised eyebrows they encounter along the way make it abundantly clear that Pooh is not a figment of Christopher’s imagination, though he is very much an agent of the man’s growth and recovery.
“Do you always have that case with you?” Pooh asks Christopher Robin, pointing to his briefcase full of Very Important Papers. It’s possible to appreciate the casual profundity of that question, even if you blanch at the way Pooh’s charmingly guileless queries have taken on a slightly reproachful, finger-wagging bent. Has Pooh’s whimsical purity been corrupted by the forces of therapeutic uplift? Or is he merely fulfilling his logical role as a glorified teddy bear, an object onto which pent-up emotions can be projected and then released?
In the end, “Christopher Robin” resolves these difficulties with wit, tact and sincere respect for the audience’s intelligence, as well as its desire for honest, unfussy pleasure. The Hundred Acre Wood to which the movie returns us is a realm of lively banter, genial slapstick and no small visual beauty (the cinematography is by Matthias Koenigswieser), populated by old friends who are almost exactly as you remember them.
McGregor, an actor with a permanent lifeline to his inner child, is perfectly suited to the title role. Once Christopher Robin’s grown-up exasperation with Pooh wears off, their moments together, tickled by the lilting musical score by Jon Brion and Geoff Zanelli, surge with gentle, unforced emotion. The lessons Christopher must learn — don’t work too hard, hold your most cherished memories close, love your family and friends above all else — are nothing if not obvious. And, much like Pooh himself, always worth revisiting.
Rating: PG, for some action
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release