With ‘Christopher Robin,’ Winnie the Pooh faces his greatest challenge yet: A marriage in crisis
So many Disney films follow a child or young adult suddenly thrown into a grown-up world and forced to overcome all of its headaches. “Christopher Robin,” however, turns a childhood hero of those who grew up admiring A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” tales into a depressed and overwhelmed adult — a man whose youthful imagination ultimately proved no match for the realities of war, fatherhood and a thankless job.
In the film, an old and familiar pal comes to the rescue, but is Winnie the Pooh — a plump stuffed bear whose biggest bothers often involved stealing honey from a bee — ready to fix the life of a workaholic whose marriage is entering crisis mode? Or, perhaps more accurately, are Pooh fans ready to see it?
Those who worked on “Christopher Robin” say the mission was to tap into the original Milne template, one that mixed comedy and complex emotions to deliver patient life lessons. The ultimate goal of the film: to dispel any notion that Winnie the Pooh is simply kid stuff.
“I wouldn’t be ashamed to be a grown man going to see a ‘Winnie the Pooh’ movie in the theater with no child next to me, so let’s make sure we’re making that movie,” said Alex Ross Perry, a filmmaker with several acclaimed indies under his belt and one of three credited screenwriters on the picture. “It has to be completely logical in that Pixar sense, where adults can go see it in a roomful of kids, but it doesn’t feel like you’re seeing a kids movie.”
While “Christopher Robin” can be viewed as following in the footsteps of Disney’s other cartoon-to-live action properties, including “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Pete’s Dragon,” the work also presents a hard left turn from those prior examples, focusing less on fantasy and instead zeroing in on the existential panic of an adult man.
Though it has many a nod to Disney’s 1977 animated compilation “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” this re-imagining from “World War Z” and “Monster’s Ball” director Marc Forster doesn’t feel entirely about re-creating the whimsical and fantastical inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood for simple nostalgia. Instead, “Christopher Robin” not only seems aimed squarely at those who grew up with Winnie the Pooh but also seeks to reflect their grown-up, mixed-up adult worlds.
It’s a family drama that just so happens to have a talking stuffed donkey.
And while Milne’s original vision for “Winnie the Pooh” often carried with it a sense of melancholy — as did the 1977 animated feature that ended in sorrowful goodbyes rather than a happily-ever-after — this may be the most emotionally intense take on Winnie the Pooh and pals yet.
“That’s a risk we really wanted to take,” said producer Brigham Taylor, who has had designs on overseeing a live-action Pooh film since watching a lifelike talking teddy bear in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”
“We knew this movie would have a thoughtful and deliberate pace because that’s the nature of this literature,” Taylor said. “But by the same token, you want to keep the story moving and keep people engaged but in a quiet and thoughtful way. We were going to have to establish a very real context for this every-man Christopher and what was holding him back — he’s ultimately the antagonist of this story — so we were hoping, and we have our fingers crossed, that kids will be patient with that.”
A period drama set in mid-century London, here the increasingly strained relationship between Ewan McGregor’s Christopher Robin and Hayley Atwell’s Evelyn Robin serves as the anchor for a film that ultimately touches on parenting struggles and class divides. The latter gives “Christopher Robin” a slightly topical edge to contrast the well-intentioned naivete of Pooh, Tigger and others.
Forster focused on the intimacy of the human actors and heightens the fragility of the stuffed creatures by giving Pooh and friends a lived-in look. He wanted the animals to feel as if they had been heavily played with. “They’re used,” he said. “They’re not brand new, off-the-shelf.” This diverges from Disney’s more recent takes on the character, who throughout a ‘90s resurgence had a brighter, more rounded feel, one that’s represented in the cheery ride The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland in Anaheim.
Starring Ewan McGregor and Hayley Atwell, the film concentrates on a working-class family man, Christopher Robin (McGregor), who encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh helps him to rediscover the joys of life.
This story begins where Milne’s ended, with Christopher Robin heading off to boarding school. “Once he goes to boarding school, he has to put on an uniform,” Forster said. “From boarding school, he has to go to war and puts on another uniform. From war, he goes to work and puts on another uniform — a tie and suit. So metaphorically speaking, he’s in a straitjacket.”
Forster contrasts that with Pooh, whose red shirt, he said, represents heart — which adults may seek to repress in a bid for seriousness and professionalism.
“We do not spend enough time with the people we love or care about,” Forster said. “When Christopher Robin comes back into the Hundred Acre Wood, and he finds all the animals, it’s kind of like coming back to a Thanksgiving dinner with all your family. There’s the weird uncle and this and that, but at the end, you still feel happy because all these characters are around and you have a wonderful time.”
The timing may be right for a more mature Winnie the Pooh. In the mid-’90s, fueled in part by the success of Disney’s TV series “The New Adventures of Pooh,” the character was experiencing such a surge in popularity that Pooh was one of the top five licensed toy lines and sold on par with Hot Wheels and Lego. Today, NPD Group, a marketing research firm, would say only that Pooh was somewhere in the “top 200.” In 2018, NPD Group reported that Pooh-branded books have combined to sell a total of 105,000 copies, placing it outside the top 50 of popular children’s books brands.
And yet we live in an era when grown-ups continually flock to movie theaters to connect, or re-connect, with the superhero or fantasy franchises of their youth.
“We can now reconsider things that were once frivolous as serious properties,” said Taylor. “That’s what Christopher Nolan did in spades with ‘Batman Begins.’ Many of us grew up with Adam West — the height of tongue-in-cheek cheeseball. More and more in this culture, I think, we like to take a more serious look and a slightly more academic look at at these things we’ve grown up with and what they mean.”
Of course, to follow Pooh’s example, maybe one shouldn’t overthink it.
“Doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something,” the character, voiced again by Jim Cummings, says in the film. The phrase forms the basis of a new song from Richard Sherman, the composer and Disney legend who with his late brother and songwriting partner Robert had a hand in many of Disney’s most beloved musical works.
“We always have to be reminded that we have to believe in our make-believe words,” said Sherman, explaining the appeal — and importance — of “Christoper Robin.”
“That’s one of the most wonderful things we have,” Sherman added. “Our imagination lifts us over and above the drab everyday. If everyone has a friend like Pooh in their hearts, they’re a lot safer. They’re protected from the spears and arrows of the world.”
Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens
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