Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Christopher Robin

This past weekend, The Wife and I took our son to see Disney's new live-action Christopher Robin film. In case you're not aware, the plot centers around a grown-up Christopher Robin, of Winnie-the-Pooh fame, who has lost touch with his childhood joy and imagination. When stress and the burden of responsibility threaten to overwhelm him (and break up his family) the stuffed animals of his childhood emerge from the Hundred Acre Wood to come to the rescue.

That's a gross over-simplification, but you get the idea.

For context, I grew up with Pooh. I imprinted on the Disney animated shorts from the 60s-70s. I loved going to Sears because they had a licensing deal with Disney and featured lots of Pooh. I had the original A.A. Milne books illustrated by E.H. Shepard and read them until they literally fell apart. I know Pooh's given name is Edward Bear and that the original plush toys are all on display at the New York Public Library (save Roo, who was either lost in an apple orchard or chewed up by a dog). I know from Pooh.

The movie is, by and large, exactly what you expect it to be. It's not terrible, but neither does it rise above expectations to become great. Watching the particular way the stuffed animal characters are portrayed, I can't help but think Disney was taken aback by the success of the Paddington films and decided to capitalize on the bear-in-the-city conceit, an easy call given their trend of remaking their animated library as live-action films. The result is a movie that is relentlessly sentimental and nostalgic, that shamelessly pulls emotional strings of my generation that grew up with the original works, and does a serviceable job of entertaining the kids who are more familiar with the various animated TV series and direct-to-video movies that followed. The plot and themes echo those of Mary Poppins in places, and perhaps conscious of academic criticisms that the Poppins film contained messaging that "poor people who know their place are happier for it," Christopher Robin's finale instead posits that workers are exploited by the upper class and deserve, at minimum, annual leave to spend time with their families.

Cynical or sincere, the film is carried by a very earnest Ewan McGregor as the titular character. Bronte Carmichael does a solid job as Christopher's daughter, and the great Hayley Atwell is pretty much wasted in a generic "concerned mother and wife" role.

There are no fart jokes, although Eeyore almost goes there with a reference to his bum hurting. Tigger doesn't break into rap (although he does do his song, to great effect). Most of the cringe-inducing cliches that plague "modernized" adaptations are thankfully absent. The computer animation of the stuffed animals is outstanding--they felt like animatronics much of the time, very textured and physically present. The character designs are halfway between the E.H. Shepard illustrations from the books and the animated shorts. That sounds like a forced marriage, but it works very well. Tonally, this is recognizably a Pooh film. If it's narrative isn't terribly inspired, well, plot's never been the character's strong suit. It is what it is, and you, dear reader, probably already know if this film is for you or not.

I feel compelled to address the Heffalump in the room, however. For much of his life, Christopher Milne resented Pooh. Not his stuffed bear and other animals, but the wildly successful books by his father and the subsequent animated films and merchandising. He felt his childhood was being exploited by others for material gain. And you know, he's got a point. The fact that the Christopher Robin of the film has a life and family very different from Christopher Milne's doesn't much matter. The fact that Christopher Milne died in 1996 didn't impact the unease I felt at various places throughout the film. I couldn't help but remember Disney's equally earnest, yet somewhat cynical, Saving Mr. Banks from 2013. In the finale of that film, author P.L.Travers is depicted as weeping for joy at seeing Mary Poppins screened for the first time. In truth, she did weep at the premiere, but only because she viewed Disney's film as a debasement of her beloved story.

As a peripheral character, Christopher Robin was mostly inconsequential, a proxy for the children reading or watching the adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, a bridge to connect them to the silly characters inhabiting that land. By moving Christopher Robin front and center, however, the dynamic is changed in significant ways. Christopher is no longer a stand-in for the viewer, but a real character, deeply flawed and not entirely sympathetic. We saw this with Spielberg's dreadful Hook and there are moments in Christopher Robin where that awful film briefly comes to mind, but thankfully, those moments are fleeting. Christopher Robin is a far better movie than Hook, if only because they never lose sight of the heart that makes Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore so endearing. Despite the obligatory redemption and triumph, Christopher Robin doesn't fare so well. The implied transference of fictional character baggage to the real-life person who always resented the cinematic intrusion on his life just feels... wrong.

Ultimately, Christopher Robin is a fictional character, whereas Christopher Milne was a real person. Where the two overlap is a fuzzy Venn diagram where truth meets fiction. The real Christopher is rapidly fading from living memory, and I doubt even a quarter of the people watching this movie are even aware the was a real person. Soon, the fictional portrayal by Ewan McGregor will be the only version to survive.

As Pooh would say, "Oh, bother."

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