When I first saw Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, I cried through almost the entire film. That said, the mixed reception it received didn’t surprise me. Its intended audience — to my mind, at least — didn’t dovetail with the market it was being sold to; despite being based on a children’s book, it wasn’t a movie meant for kids. It was a story about growing up told by someone who already had, and told to someone of the same age.
All of this to say: I thought about Where the Wild Things Are at a few points throughout Disney’s most recent outing to the Hundred Acre Wood, Christopher Robin, directed by Marc Forster, which exists somewhere between being geared for kids and geared for adults. But Christopher Robin is a much stranger creature (in the best possible way as it is singularly lovely) – it features frankly devastating stretches of melancholy and refuses to make any easy prescription for the anxieties of adulthood, all of which is punctuated by comic moments that range from being deliriously funny to tonal misfires. That imbalance isn’t, however, something I’m inclined to hold against the film. Its messiness works for it.
On paper, the story is fairly predictable. Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) hasn’t been back to the Hundred Acre Wood since he was a young boy, and in the interim, has lost his creative spark and lust for life. He barely sees his wife and daughter (Hayley Atwell and Bronte Carmichael, respectively), so concerned is he with his work. And then, as things start to look particularly dire, like an even more benevolent Christmas Carol, Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) comes to visit.
Though McGregor, Atwell, and Carmichael are undeniably appealing presences, the film’s success hinges on the little bear. Redesigned — or perhaps retro-designed — to more closely resemble E.H. Shepard’s original illustrations, Pooh is almost painfully cute, and Cummings’ vocal performance is (as always) pitch-perfect. There’s a pleasingly ponderous quality to the bear that can seamlessly shift from sweetness to sadness, and it’s that grounding that gives Christopher Robin the heft that it might otherwise lack.
The film’s opening, which features the young Christopher Robin’s farewell party, is filled with warm colors that slowly drain away after the boy leaves. Time fast-forwards through mock chapters that draw the characters in and out of illustrations before depositing us into Christopher Robin’s adulthood in post-war Britain. Unfortunately, that change in color also affects the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin has forgotten about his childhood companions despite promising that he never would, and the result is desolation.
Watching Pooh wander through a deserted Hundred Acre Wood was affecting to me as an adult to the degree that I wonder how it would have struck me as a child. That kind of yearning, which mixes happiness and sadness, is difficult to wrestle with, and yet underlies the entire film. There are touches of it in the score (composed by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion) as well as in the frankly Malick-ian quality of the outdoor scenes. (There is literally a shot of Pooh’s paw brushing through wild grass.) None of it is typical for a kid’s movie, nor does it quite fit with the more slapstick aspects of the film that seem to be intended to balance it out.
I might be more inclined to complain if it didn’t feel of a kin with Christopher Robin’s struggle to balance his personal and professional lives. Speaking as broadly as possible so as not to spoil the end of the film, Christopher Robin doesn’t take the usual, prescribed route out. It’s always been one of my pet peeves when films suggest that abandoning all security and taking a leap of faith is the only way of achieving happiness, and this film seems to realize that it’s a lie. A leap of faith is still a risk, and the personal sacrifice that is sometimes necessary for security might be what’s needed. Finding a happy medium is difficult, but at least Christopher Robin tries.
And all that aside, it’s just a very charming movie. Brad Garrett also stands out in the voice cast as Eeyore, embodying a constant self-deprecating depression that I think any viewer into or past their teenage years will find all too familiar. The bit players are also a murderer’s row of England’s finest comic actors, including Paul Chahidi as a gregarious neighbor, and the trio of Matt Berry, Mackenzie Crook, and Simon Farnaby (last seen in the other big bear movie, Paddington 2) in one of the movie’s most delightful human-centric scenes.
Not all of the film’s quirks are given a proper resolution — as it turns out, Pooh’s walking and talking is visible to everyone and not just a figment of Christopher Robin’s imagination, leading to the film’s longest (and possibly best) gag but also questions as to the fabric of reality — but they don’t need to be. It has an honest emotional landscape, which is what ultimately matters.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10