On overworked dads, pre-packaged lessons, and the crass cynicism undergirding movies like Christopher Robin
Christopher Robin Walt Disney Studios
Director: Marc Forster
Screenplay: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, based on characters created by A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Sophie Okonedo, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed and Peter Capaldi
Rated PG / 1 hour, 44 minutes / 2.39:1
August 3, 2018
(out of four)
No wonder Pooh and the Gang don't recognize Christopher Robin at first. The guy blends in with so many other Overworked Movie Dads Who Really Need to Learn an Important Lesson About Priorities, how are any of them supposed to tell the difference? This new guy could be an impostor. Could be Peter Pan for all they know.
Were we to see him from the point-of-view of his beloved Hundred Acre Wood inhabitants, he may appear as something of an abstract - say, a roughly sketched version of one of E.H. Shepard's illustrations, a defined shape with an obscured identity. Presumably he would eventually come into focus. Instead, in Marc Forster's Christopher Robin, the title character remains abstract all the way to the end - except in the screenplay's strict application of specific moments in which he shows "growth" in order to resolve one plot requirement or another. (Frankly, I don't think Piglet or anyone else would look too kindly on such insincere gestures.)
The degree to which this disingenuous movie does not care about its eponymous hero - or his life, or the void between the boy he was and the man he became - is self-evident. It is only concerned with manufacturing a dilemma that leads inexorably to Christopher Robin doing the right thing and then warmly embracing his smiling family. It takes the unassuming wisdom and courage of his woodland pals to convince him to make the altruistic choice we all know he's going to make, but nothing he goes through - no conversations, no discoveries, no visual signals - make the case for why. Beyond the typical signposts like Family and Mean Boss. Nor is there any tangible attempt, on Christopher's part, to actually figure out "what to do, what to do." He just wanders off, finds himself in his old childhood stomping grounds, and is eventually struck by life-changing inspiration just because. There's such crass inevitability to it all. I'm frankly surprised to see that this movie lasted an hour and 44 minutes. Nothing happens in it. No realizations are arrived at, just decided upon. No journeys are had, just destinations fulfilled.
The most obvious pop-culture reference point is Steven Spielberg's Hook. There are many terrible things about Hook, but to its credit, it lays bare the corrupted adult man that the boy who never grew up had grown up to become. It doesn't try to make a one-step object lesson of its erstwhile Peter Pan. He's a miserable, self-absorbed workaholic down to his bones. But the Christopher Robin in Christopher Robin is given a fundamentally easy, obvious "conflict," which leads to an easy, obvious resolution. There's nothing more to it than that.
The situation is this: Decades after departing the Hundred Acre Wood for the last time - sent off to boarding school and then the military and then cosmopolitan adult life - Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) finds himself mired unhappily in middle management. He's an efficiency specialist at a luggage company, a position that makes him responsible for the wages and employment status of his entire office. His haughty, entitled boss Mr. Winslow (Mark Gatiss) - whose father owns the company - has instructed him to spend the weekend running some numbers and deciding which members of staff should be cut. Exacerbating his dilemma is the fact that - and please feel free to say this in unison - he promised to spend the weekend with his family. Specifically, at his cottage in the country right where he spent his childhood. (As coincidence would have it.) It is made clear that this is not the first time Christopher has had to blow off family time for work.
The most damning illustration of the film's insincerity re: our hero's family-vs-work predicament is that neither Christopher's all-important wife nor Christopher's all-important daughter actually, in any concrete sense, exists. His wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell, who deserves better) is not a human person. She's an object who is only on screen to give Christopher Robin disapproving looks - a flimsy stand-in for the movie's built-in lesson. The daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), is developed only marginally better. She is there to be an adorable child who puts on a sad face when Daddy isn't spending enough time with her - on occasion she precociously says something wise beyond her years - but aside from the occasional small moment, she's only a symbol of the life Christopher Robin is willfully missing. We might be able to feel the void in his life if anyone had bothered to write these two characters.
Christopher Robin's misplacement of its own priorities - at least with regard to the wife and daughter - isn't even justified by the use of the storybook characters. As with everything else in Christopher Robin, the filmmakers know where they're going but don't know what to do with anyone along the way. We spend more time with Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo and Owl than we do with any of the other (non-Christopher) characters, but they're every bit as superfluous. There's no creativity to the way they're deployed - even by the standards of their clear symbolic purpose. The film never comes up with a way for these characters to really help Christopher Robin - enlighten him, advise him, inspire him, bring him back to earth - and so instead it just throws in an "oops" plot contrivance and spends the final half-hour resolving that oops. He accidentally leaves his briefcase in the woods and they have to return it to him. That's it. Nothing of emotional substance, no more creative way to connect them to Christopher's ethical plight. Just some forgotten business papers that leads to a meaninglessly cheap "race against the clock" finale. That's the best any of these three accomplished screenwriters came up with.
That would be indie filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel, Queen of Earth, Golden Exits), Oscar winner Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Station Agent, Win Win), and Oscar nominee Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures). Any one of them could be reasonably expected to make something of the premise, and yet collectively they came up with almost nothing that a screenplay manual couldn't have done on its own.
As for Forster, he's coming off his most interesting effort in a decade - 2016's little-seen Blake Lively-starrer All I See is You - and has followed it up with his least interesting, if not his worst (that would be The Kite Runner), failing to achieve even the exceedingly modest pleasures of his similarly themed Finding Neverland.
Something like Christopher Robin often strikes me as the most cynical type of movie - at least when they're made with so little imagination and curiosity as this one. This is a movie that has a certain veneer of quality - the top-notch cast, the virtuous intentions, the British accents, the Very Attractive Scenery. But those traits are merely camouflage. The lessons are too predetermined, the dilemmas too flimsy, the characters too thin. If this film actually cared about what happens to this character - or his family, or his job, or the employees he's so sad about maybe having to fire - it would have done more than the bare minimum getting to know that family, and that job, and those employees. This is a movie made entirely of cardboard cutouts and it cynically wants us to believe we're looking at the real thing.