Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 12, 2018)
When Christopher Robin hit screens in summer 2018, one could excuse audiences who felt a sense of déjà vu. After all, Goodbye Christopher Robin came out about 10 months earlier, and the similar titles caused inevitable confusion.
However, this didn’t keep audiences from the 2018 film – maybe because most potential viewers apparently didn’t know Goodbye existed. Whereas Goodbye earned less than $2 million at the box office, the 2018 flick brought in nearly $200 million worldwide.
Perhaps this happened because Christopher Robin went with a more “family-friendly” tale. Whereas Goodbye tried for a dramatic feel, the 2018 effort embraces the line between reality and fantasy.
Set in London after World War II, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) works for a luggage company and lives with wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). As a child he enjoyed imaginary adventures with various animals in the Hundred Acre Wood, but those ended when he went to boarding school.
Except it turns out Christopher’s pals Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) and the others weren’t so imaginary after all. After a long slumber, Pooh awakens and can’t find his buddies. Eager to reunite with his friends, Pooh makes his way to Christopher’s abode in London, an action that sets off a series of improbable adventures.
Director Marc Forster also made 2004’s Finding Neverland, a tale about Peter Pan creator JM Barrie. I guess that qualified him to take the reins for Robin, even though Neverland offered a more reality-focused tale.
Whereas Goodbye tried to dramatize the life of Pooh author AA Milne, Christopher Robin goes for total fantasy, as it never attempts to connect to the real character behind Christopher. This seems like a questionable choice on the surface, but in the end, it works out fairly well.
Though expect some confusion along the way, as it becomes difficult to tell how much of Robin we’re intended to view as “real” and how much should be seen as fantasy. Initially, I assumed that the movie would treat Pooh and friends as figments of Christopher’s imagination, characters who come to life in his mind and that’s it.
Nope - Robin clearly presents Pooh and pals as living participants in the story, though it hedges its bets in that realm. Enough scenes make it obvious that Pooh and the others do exist as “real” but the film keeps this side of the story so vague that one could miss these signs.
This remains a surprising choice for me, especially given the movie’s theme. Robin is really about Christopher’s dowdiness, as the adult character seems to have completely forgotten how to have fun.
As such, I expected Robin to show us how Christopher rekindles the child inside, one who imagines marvelous adventures. The choice to make his youthful experiences real somewhat blunts the impact of his internal revival.
Despite this potentially problematic choice – and a fairly cliché theme - Robin works fairly well. Granted, it takes a while to get going, and we don’t view Pooh’s revival until almost half an hour into the story.
Once he reappears, Robin immediately gains charm and starts to come to life. As I stated, the narrative feels less than innovative, but the inclusion of Pooh and (eventually) his pals adds some fun and allows matters to take unusual twists.
McGregor does a nice job as the adult Christopher. He manages to encapsulate the character’s mid-life dullness but he doesn’t overplay Christopher’s revival as he gradually re-embraces his inner child.
McGregor grounds the film and allows us to buy the story, despite all the improbable moments. Cummings has played Pooh for decades, and he does a nice spin on the part. He adds charm to the tale and helps us invest in the overall journey.
At no point does Robin threaten to become an especially fresh adventure, as it does come saddled with a fair number of clichés. Nonetheless, the filmmakers deliver the material with such warmth and wit that it becomes a likable tale.
Footnote: stick around through the end credits for a tag with a cameo from a Disney notable.