Christopher Robin (2018)

2018 #180
Marc Forster | 104 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Christopher Robin

Disney appear to have found a rich seam to mine for box office gold when it comes to live-action remakes of their most popular animated properties. Some have been variations different enough to almost stand on their own two feet; others have been straight-up remakes, because why mess with success. Christopher Robin is, perhaps, the most original so far. There have been many Winnie the Pooh adaptations down the years, as well as original movies and TV series featuring the same characters, so rather than remake any of those, here Disney have set about telling another brand-new story (although it begins with an adaptation of one of A.A. Milne’s very best Pooh stories, which is nice). This new tale justifies its live-action form by moving beyond the confines of the Hundred Acre Wood; and it also, smartly, trades on our own childhood nostalgia for the silly old bear.

We all remember Christopher Robin as a small boy, but small boys grow up, and now Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is an adult in post-war London with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). He works for a luggage company that is facing the prospect of firing most of Christopher’s team, unless he can find 20% of cuts; so instead of going away with his family for a nice weekend in the country, he must stay and work — again. With both his personal and professional lives on the brink of collapse, Christopher is very stressed.

Pooh in the park

Meanwhile, in his childhood playground of the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh (a convincingly cuddly CGI creation, given voice by Pooh’s regular performer, Jim Cummings) awakens one morning to find all his friends are missing. Deeply concerned, he wanders through the door through which Christopher Robin used to appear, and finds himself in London, where who should he bump into but his old childhood friend — now all grown up and serious. But Pooh is still a childlike innocent, of course (don’t worry, they haven’t given him a Ted-style makeover), and maybe that attitude is just what Christopher needs.

Having said they haven’t made Pooh into Ted (thank goodness — I like Ted, but that really isn’t the spirit of this franchise), there’s more than a little whiff of Paddington here. It’s not the exact same plot, but the overall theme — of a naïve but good-hearted bear arriving to help humans overcome their problems with kindness — is certainly similar. Indeed, many beats of the story that unfolds are familiar — the climax is somewhat borrowed from Mary Poppins, for example; and you’ll know how every subplot will end as soon as it’s introduced. For some viewers, this will render the film pointless and clichéd. For others… well, it’s not really the point.

The joy of Christopher Robin is it takes those recycled elements and filters them through the prism of Pooh. If you too loved Pooh as a child, or an adult, then Christopher’s journey to rediscover that connection is relatable and supportable. And it’s simply a delight to spend time with the characters, as Pooh casually (and accidentally) dispenses heartfelt wisdom that both delights and, occasionally, may even cause you to think.

Tigger on the loose

The other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood do pop up too: miserable old Eeyore (Brad Garrett) stole the show for the audience I watched with; Tigger (also Cummings, after test audiences objected to Chris O’Dowd’s English-accented take on the character!) is as exuberant as ever; and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) remains the voice of caution and cowardice, and as sweet as ever. As “the main ones”, those four get the most to do in the story, but there are also appearances from Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) to complete the set; and with actors that good providing the voices, they make their mark.

But, really, this is all about Pooh. Well, Pooh and Christopher Robin — the title’s not inaccurate. For those who don’t feel a connection to the bear of very little brain, I guess the familiarity of the narrative he’s part of in this film will drag down enjoyment — this, I presume, is why the reviews have been somewhat mixed. But, in my opinion, a little Pooh goes a long way — as Christopher says, he may be a bear of very little brain, but he’s also a bear of very big heart. The combination makes for a film that is amusing, sweet, and thoroughly delightful.

4 out of 5

Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

2011 #99
Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall | 63 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / G

Winnie the PoohWinnie the Pooh, as many reviews on its release were keen to point out, is for small children. It doesn’t have the attempts to placate adults with their own jokes that elevate/plague most American animation; it’s only an attention-span-friendly hour long; and it has a lovely, genial, friendly tone, with brightly coloured characters, plinky-plonky songs and heartwarming moral messages.

The thing is, I don’t hold that this makes it “just for ickle kiddies”. Sure, it can, and when it’s done poorly it most certainly does, but that’s not Winnie the Pooh. Look back to A.A. Milne’s original stories and you see the same thing: ostensibly it’s just for the kids, but there’s actually all kinds of wordplay and (admittedly, gentle) subversion that’s clearly targeted at the adult reading the book. This new film captures that same effect. Naturally this means it won’t work on the cynical or black-hearted viewer, or the Mature type whose favour isn’t even curried by the adult-targeted jokes in a Pixar film, but for the rest of us it can make it a delight.

In few other films would you see the characters interact with the narrator; see them scramble across the words in the pages of the book their story comes from; indeed, see the presence of those tangible letters help along the plot — I won’t spoil how. You don’t have to love Winnie the Pooh in an ironic still-a-child-at-heart kind of way, even if the presence of real-life Manic Dream Pixie Girl Zooey Deschanel on vocals suggests you might — it’s clever and witty enough to transcend that.

Interacting with lettersThe majority of the film’s other elements click into place nicely too. The traditional animation is gorgeously executed, the voices are the ones we surely all know from growing up alongside Disney’s Pooh output, particularly Jim Cummings pulling double time as both Pooh and Tigger, as he has for decades. The exception I’d make is Bud Luckey’s Eeyore. I don’t know if he’s always sounded like that and I’d forgotten, but his voice didn’t work for me. It’s not the only problem: the songs can be a bit insipid; equally, a couple transcend that to work beautifully; and there’s no denying that it is a bit short; but then it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and hey, Dumbo’s no longer.

The American Academy have overlooked Winnie the Pooh in their nominations this weekend (not to mention Tintin, and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten), I imagine writing it off as “just for little kids”. And that’s a shame, because I don’t think it is. I certainly loved it more than Rango and it’s definitely better than Kung Fu Panda 2, to pick on the two nominees I’ve seen. I struggle to believe I’ll find Puss in Boots more endearing.

Nonetheless, as much as I would dearly love to give a new Winnie the Pooh film full marks, there are a few niggles that hold me back — the songs, Eeyore’s voice, the length. But it is ever so lovely, and it came ever so close.

4 out of 5

The 2012 Oscars are on Monday at 1:30am on Sky Movies Premiere.

Winnie the Pooh merited an honourable mention on my list of The Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

Marching

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

2008 #92
John Lounsbery & Wolfgang Reitherman | 71 mins | DVD | U / G

The Many Adventures of Winnie the PoohHaving finished 2007 with Piglet’s Big Movie, it feels somewhat appropriate to round off 2008 (almost) with Disney’s first Winnie-the-Pooh feature.

The Many Adventures… is actually compiled from three shorts made in 1966, 1968 and 1974, with some new linking material. I don’t know if these shorts were produced with any great expense, but there’s occasional evidence of what looks like cheap animation. It’s not that it’s not smooth or fluid, but rather the attentive viewer will often spot sketch marks around some lines, or flashes of other bits not properly erased. Perhaps it was deliberate, considering the sketchy style of the backgrounds, designed to evoke the original illustrations, but I sometimes found it distracting.

This is one relatively minor flaw in an otherwise brilliant adaptation, however. The film faithfully adapts several of the original stories, acknowledging its sources by frequently showing the action as illustrations within a copy of the book. This fourth-wall-breaking move may irritate some, but personally I loved seeing Pooh and co have to leap from page to page, or tipping the book sideways to free Tigger from a tree. Such moves seem tonally in keeping with A.A. Milne’s original stories and, even though some tales are abridged and some good ones left out, that spirit is always retained.

The characterisation is also spot on, producing an array of cute and loveable creations, none more so than Pooh himself. The gopher is an unnecessary addition, though the running joke about him not being in the book is very nicely done. And one can’t fail to mention the excellent songs, now as linked to the world of Pooh as anything from the original books — especially Tigger’s little tune, surely familiar to anyone who was a child in the last 30 years.

If some later Disney ventures have lost sight of the correct spirit for Pooh’s adventures, at least this original is a great adaptation. Bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, and, above all, fun fun fun fun fun.

5 out of 5

Piglet’s Big Movie (2003)

2007 #129
Francis Glebas | 72 mins | TV | U / G

Piglet's Big MovieI used to enjoy the Disney Winnie the Pooh series when I was younger. I also used to love the original books by A.A. Milne. In fact, I still enjoy the books — they’re witty, knowingly written, and often sweet. Sadly, Disney’s interpretation seems to have faired less well.

In this case it’s largely down to the first half, where the mostly original storyline and weak & randomly inserted songs simply aren’t up to scratch. However, things improve massively with a couple of fairly straight adaptations of Milne’s original tales.

Mildly amusing at times and with a positive (if predictable) message about friendship and self-worth, this would undoubtedly entertain young children — which, to be fair, is its intended audience. While it initially seems to fall far short for older audiences, it turns out to be not all bad.

3 out of 5