Christopher Robin: Cliched, charming and full of heart

This image released by Disney shows Ewan McGregor in a scene from "Christopher Robin."  (Laurie Sparham/Disney via AP, File)

I grew up with Winnie the Pooh. I spent my childhood days singing along to Pooh’s Rain Cloud song and hiding behind the couch from the dreaded Skullasaurous. I recently spent a large part of my summer playing the Hundred Acre Wood levels in both Kingdom Hearts I and II. This character has a very dear place in my heart.

So when I saw Disney was making yet another live-action adaptation of a beloved childhood character, I thought to myself: The Mouse had better not screw this up.

“Christopher Robin” is a departure from both the appearance and the center of the Winnie the Pooh series. Instead of the animated characters we’re used to seeing on screen (and on wallpaper, notebooks, pajamas and the like - Pooh is one of Disney’s major merch moneymakers) the film instead focuses on the characters in their original form: stuffed animals, which A. A. Milne based the original series on. His own son Christopher Robin was the inspiration for the character in the series (though I’m afraid his involvement with the franchise is far less charming than his fictional role in it).

The film centers not on Pooh, but Christopher Robin, as he was depicted in the series: the trusted and nigh-messiah-like figure to the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood and his eventual exit from the innocent world of Pooh, Tigger, Roo, Rabbit and the others, as he is sent to boarding school and, eventually, adult life. Think “Hook,” but with less Rufio and more honey.

The first 15 minutes of the film is rather like Pixar’s Up: It’s an emotional gut punch. We see Christopher Robin say goodbye to Pooh and the others, and face the unkind world of British boarding schools, parental death and even war, as he’s drafted into the British army during WWII. All this drives him far from the memories of the Hundred Acre Wood- even when he returns to his wife and child to settle into a civilian life and job. Meanwhile, Pooh waits- a heartbreaking vigil much like you see in “Pooh’s Grand Adventure.”

The plot itself focuses on Christopher Robin (played by Ewan MacGregor) reconnecting with his childhood when his demanding job as an efficiency director at a luggage company threatens his connection with his family. Pooh is the catalyst of this, when he stumbles into the “real world” of London and forces Christopher Robin to return to his childhood stomping grounds.

While the CG Uncanny Valley seems to be a risk to the nostalgic viewer, the movie manages to circumvent this. Pooh and his friends look like living, breathing stuffed animals. They’re less cartoonish, but in a way, they’re easier to connect with. The animators even got Pooh’s little “rip” on his belly that you see in the original films. The voice acting is also spot-on (with the exception of Rabbit, who isn’t very prominent, probably due to his original voice actor passing away in 1978.)

Another high point: Not once does Christopher Robin deny Pooh’s existence or role in his life. He takes The Hundred Acre Wood as a fact of life, instead of trying to brush it off as “childish make-believe,” which you often see in plots like these.

For all its charm, however, this movie has a major flaw: A villain. Inevitable as the “overworked father” storyline is (why is it never the mother?), the foppish executive always demands the protagonist takes time away from his family to attend a meeting/come up with a prototype/fix the economy, etc. In this case, his name is Giles Winslow Jr., played by Mark Gatiss, and by the end is disposed of in an appropriately foppish manner. Sure, he was somewhat funny, but that’s not the core of the issue.

Winnie the Pooh, despite its innocent-seeming exterior, is ultimately a series of self-analysis. At its core, it is about both the charms and pitfalls of simplistic thinking: Anxiety balanced with cautious care, intelligence with arrogance, energy with over-enthusiasm, and so on.

The original animated Disney film “Winnie the Pooh” touches on this; “Pooh’s Grand Adventure” delves further into the child-like perspectives (and the relative terrors) of the respectively child-like characters, as they chase after their human friend Christopher Robin when he departs to school for the first time.

The battles within Winnie the Pooh are entirely internal; it is a case of Man vs. Himself, or vs. Conflict. Even the traditional “villains” of the series (Heffalumps and Woozles) are more or less in the characters’ heads (unless you count Pooh’s Heffalump Movie as canon, but even then, the conflict was mostly against the character’s prejudices). Even Kingdom Hearts gets this- unlike the rest of the game, there are no enemies to fight in the Pooh levels, only minigames. A physical antagonist has no place there- or in this movie.

However foppish and unnecessary the villain may be, the film is, ultimately, charming. It’s filled with hijinks, adorable moments and heartwarming scenes. It’ll leave you a little teary-eyed for both Christopher Robin’s lost childhood and yours. There’s hope, though; just as he returns to The Hundred Acre Wood, you can as well. Four out of five hunny pots.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.