Film

The Modest, Melancholy “Christopher Robin” Is Not Your Typical Disney Joint

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An altogether more melancholy affair than what might be expected from a Walt Disney “reboot” of an animated classic, Christopher Robin shifts the focus from Winnie the Pooh to his human friend and the perils of growing up and losing your soul. The idea isn’t exactly original — a certain type of family film has always concerned itself with the sad distance between childhood and adulthood, and between children and adults. (Hook, Mary Poppins, Liar Liar, and, uh, Nine Lives come to mind.) Even Disney’s original Peter Pan has a touching grace note about humorless disciplinarian Mr. Darling finally recalling his own childhood, and realizing that he, too, once knew Peter Pan. But the modesty, the unfussy simplicity, of Christopher Robin feels different, and somewhat refreshing.

The story begins with Pooh and his friends (animated to look not so much like cartoon creatures as stuffed, much-used toys come to ramshackle life) saying farewell to the young, boarding school–bound Christopher as he prepares to leave the Hundred Acre Wood. We then launch into a touching montage in which the boy grows into a man. We see him struggling at school, losing his father, and falling in love. He then goes off to war, and returns home years later to a young daughter and a wife who’ve had to contend on their own. It’s a moving little jaunt through the travails of a wartime generation that never stopped striving — from the Depression to the battlefield to the postwar years of rebuilding. A generation in which many found solace and security in steady, boring jobs.

Sadly, that also means that Christopher has now become a workaholic. He’s a manager in the efficiency department of a high-end luggage company, and he’s been tasked with reducing expenses — which will likely mean laying off some of his friends and colleagues. Not only that, he has to come in over the weekend to prepare a presentation about how he intends to cut costs, which puts the kibosh on his plans to go to the family cottage with his wife and daughter. They’re upset, but not too much; this is not the first time Dad’s stayed behind so he can work. Christopher’s industriousness and seriousness has even affected his everyday interactions with his daughter: Reading to her at night, he goes for the big book of English history, instead of her desired pick, Treasure Island.

Meanwhile, Pooh wakes up one morning to find all his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood missing. Looking for help, he steps in through the door that leads to the human world — which should lead to Christopher’s rural cottage in Suffolk, but this time opens into the heart of London, right by Christopher’s office. (“I guess it’s where it needs to be,” the bear reflects, matter-of-factly.) Despite the years, Pooh recognizes his human friend immediately, and soon the adult Christopher has returned to the Wood to help the bear find the others. Reliving his youth and remembering his old companions, Christopher reconnects to the person he used to be — nearly.

How all that eventually leads to reconciliation with his family and a solution to his professional challenges, I won’t get into. There’s a mix-up, a car chase, and a whole bit about Christopher’s business plans being used as a saddle for Eeyore. The film manages to walk a delicate line between maintaining its somber tone and infusing some joy into the proceedings. That may not be enough for it to appeal to audiences used to family epics filled with endless set pieces or more overt emotionality, but no matter. It makes for an intriguing mixture of tones: Christopher Robin preaches a return to childhood exuberance and frivolity, but its quiet, focused restraint often feels like it’s coming from a very different impulse — an old-world professionalism and humility. It’s a grown-up sensibility applied to a child’s tale, which makes for an occasionally endearing mixture. In today’s world, I’ll take it.

Christopher Robin
Directed by Marc Forster
Walt Disney Pictures
Now playing

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