Decades after leaving the Hundred Acre Wood for boarding school, troubled veteran Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) now works in middle-management at a London-based luggage company. Neglecting his wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter for his job, Christopher reaches an ethical crisis when he is confronted with firing half of his staff to save the company money. It is at this point that his childhood teddy bear Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) returns to up-end his life.
In recent years the Walt Disney Company has built up a remarkably successful side-line in adapting their existing animated features into live-action. These have essentially been seeing release on an annual basis, although 2018 is set to witness three of them hit the cinemas (Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King, in something of a release schedule traffic jam). 2018’s effort was Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin, which was met with moderate commercial success but what felt like popular disinterest. It came, it made a profit, but it never felt as if it caused so much of a ripple in popular culture. It was not really talked about, and seemed to receive no positive or negative responses at all. I must admit that I overlooked its release entirely.
That’s a minor shame. I say minor because Christopher Robin is, ultimately, a minor sort of a film. It does not feel artistically necessary, nor commercially savvy, and seems destined to be half-forgotten within a year of its release. It is, however, also a shame, since Marc Forster has directed something gentle, pleasant, and ultimately very sweet. Fans of Disney’s particularly style of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh characters will be particularly charmed. Children with patience for the film’s slow pace will likely be delighted.
The film’s design and effects are wonderful, using Disney’s vision of the Pooh characters with a sort of worn, threadbare aesthetic that makes these legacy characters feel somewhat like a cross between Disney’s designs and the original E.H. Shepard illustrations from Milne’s novels. The animation of these characters, blending puppetry movement and CGI, is the highlight. They feel real, and lovable, and bring back numerous childhood memories. They are also beautifully voiced, including such spot-on castings as Peter Capaldi as Rabbit, Toby Jones as Owl, and Brad Garrett as Eeyore.
As Pooh, Jim Cummings is doing the best work of his career. The character’s distinctive creaky voice, sounding both elderly and young, was developed by the legendary Sterling Holloway back in 1966. Cummings took over the role in 1988, after Holloway’s death. Over the decades Cummings has done an excellent act of mimicry in the role. Here he exceeds it with a tremendous act of nuance and gentle, heartfelt emotion. He is funny regularly, but here he also extends to the heart-breaking. It is a shame that the Academy Awards do not specifically avoid voice-acting; this year he would be a top contender. His work is not just talented. It is definitive.
Ewan McGregor brings a lot of polite, mannered appeal to the title role, but of course he is already a veteran of acting against CGI images, thanks to his three-film role as Oni-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels. Hayley Atwell is good, but saddled with an unwisely small role as Christopher’s long-suffering wife. As Christopher’s unsympathetic boss is Mark Gatiss, who essentially plays Mark Gatiss: a few exceptions aside, like last year’s The Favourite, he always seems to play the same kind of character in the same kind of way.
The film is admittedly too slow, and it takes much too long to bring in the animated characters that will capture the audience’s attention and particularly entertain the young target audience. It is beautifully designed and filmed. It brings a very strong sense of prestige and importance too – after all it is Winnie the Pooh’s live-action feature debut – but as an entertaining, mainstream family film is doing feel just a little lacking where it counts. It feels admirable rather than excellent, and once every so often it feels like an absolute delight.