There’s a scene in “Shadowlands,” the 1993 portrait of novelist C.S. Lewis, in which a young boy is excited to discover the giant wooden wardrobe that inspired “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” He throws open the door and reaches through the coats hoping to find Narnia … only to feel cold, hard wood at the back of the armoire. Disney wouldn’t dare undermine one of its franchises with such a scene, and yet, with “Christopher Robin,” it’s made a movie that feels similarly disenchanting — the latest and least of the studio’s live-action reboots of a widely adored cartoon.
Whereas “Winnie-the-Pooh” author A.A. Milne probably would have approved of the concept behind director Marc Forster’s well-meaning spinoff, it’s hard to imagine him being especially pleased with the result, in which an enchanted reunion between the now-adult title character (Ewan McGregor) and his stuffed bear helps to put the grown boy’s priorities into perspective. As for audiences, the film is a disappointment but not a disaster, falling far short of the bar set with “Cinderella” and “Saving Mr. Banks” in recent years. It won’t make you love the silly old(er) bear any less, but you can feel a tiny part of your childhood dying in the process.
As much as the world loves what Disney has done with Pooh over the years, perhaps the studio wasn’t the appropriate party to tackle such a project, so invested is it in not tarnishing the reputation of one of its most successful brands (who was right behind Mickey as the company’s No. 2 merchandising character until the conglomerate gobbled up the Star Wars and Marvel universes). Baked into the concept of “Christopher Robin” — whose cumbersome screenplay credit lists three writers, two “story by” guys, original author A.A. Milne, and illustrator E.H. Shepard — is what seems to be its biggest flaw: an unwillingness to let Pooh be seen as “just a toy” in the eyes of either its characters or the audience. That is to say, Pooh and the gang are depicted as living creatures at all times to all people, complicating what it means for Christopher Robin to have left them behind.
This project finds director Forster back in “Finding Neverland” mode — although as J.M. Barrie comparisons go, it essentially does for Pooh what “Hook” did for Peter Pan, turning its ostensible hero into a middle-aged bore. Back in British period territory, Forster does a reasonably successful job of creating a consistent, nostalgia-infused tone for the entire film, which borrows episodes and fortune-cookie philosophies directly from Milne’s oeuvre. As it happens, the movie “Goodbye Christopher Robin” covered similar ground last year, exposing the somewhat surprising true story of Milne’s relationship with his son, Christopher Robin, who felt that his childhood was compromised by his father’s literary success, and who ultimately came to resent the character of Pooh — which might have been an even more interesting, albeit far riskier point from which to begin this project.
The film opens with the final scene of “The House at Pooh Corner,” in which Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, the same actor who has performed the character for the past three decades) and friends — Tigger (also Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) — host a farewell dinner for 9-year-old Christopher (Robin is now his last name), who is bound for boarding school. It’s amusing to see these familiar characters rendered as Milne might have known them, looking alive behind their worn plush “fur” and unblinking button eyes. That way, the voices are allowed to do most of the work (Eeyore is a scene-stealer), while subtle digital animation around their mouths and brows allows these toys to convey a surprisingly wide range of emotions (quite literally underscored by Jon Brion and Geoff Zanelli’s update of the cartoon’s classic theme).
Following the party, like Puff the Magic Dragon’s proverbial human friend or the boy who abandoned the Velveteen Rabbit, Christopher grows up and stops thinking about his childhood companions. Using a storybook device, the prologue skips forward a couple decades (McGregor appears to be playing someone far younger than his actual age of 47) to find him married (to Hayley Atwell’s one-dimensional Evelyn), the father of 9-year-old daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), and working long hours for a high-end luggage manufacturer. It is now the late 1930s, and World War II has put a pinch on spending, so Christopher’s boss (Mark Gatiss) insists that they cut production costs or else cut the staff.
Such tedious workplace scenes take up a surprising amount of the film’s running time, which will surely bore or annoy young viewers (I can remember squirming through the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” song in “Mary Poppins” as a child, and here felt like most of “Christopher Robin” takes place under such circumstances). Christopher has promised his family a vacation in the country, but when duty calls, he must stay behind and work, shipping wife and child off on their own. And then one day, seemingly at random, Pooh loses track of his friends and decides to enlist Christopher’s help, crawling through a magic portal that takes him to London.
It’s a lousy (not to mention lazy) device to wrest Christopher from his work — since he couldn’t be bothered to attend to his daughter, why would he drop everything to help Pooh on such a quest? The story would have made so much more sense if Madeline had stumbled across her father’s old toys, only to discover that they’re really alive. Or maybe it could have played with the idea that they’re only alive in Christopher’s imagination, like “Harvey” or comic-strip Calvin’s pet tiger Hobbes.
Instead, the movie follows Christopher back to the Hundred Acre Wood, where he must convince the gang that he hasn’t changed (they think he’s a Heffalump, one of the imaginary creatures they hunted in their heyday). But, of course, he has changed — and not for the better. As written, Christopher is kind of a jerk, not the live-action equivalent of “Toy Story” kiddo Andy, who brought tears to our eyes when he finally surrendered his toys (there will be no weeping here).
McGregor is a perfectly likable actor, which helps soften the character’s shortcomings, but Christopher isn’t very interesting, and the film’s familiar lesson — conveyed via one of Pooh’s more ridiculous mantras, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something” — feels more than a little bit unfair. The movie basically ingratiates itself with kids by scolding adults for losing track of what’s important, and yet, both in the 1930s and today, a responsible father doesn’t really have the option of quitting his job. In the movie, Madeline doesn’t want to go off to boarding school, and we’re asked to hope that Christopher won’t force her. But surely Milne, a role model such as Mr. Rogers, or any reasonable adult could find a more constructive message than “Do nothing!”