Not all (super) heroes wear spandex, capes, or cowls. Some (super) heroes don’t even wear pants or even underwear, preferring to go au natural from the waist down and a too-short, tight-fitting sweater up top.
Their powers don’t involve flight, super-strength, or invisibility, just the seemingly endless appetite for honey and waxing philosophical just when their human counterparts need them the most (i.e., during a mid-life personal and professional crisis).
That might sound like a curious mash-up of A.A. Milne’s beloved, self-aware, ambulatory teddy bear and Steven Spielberg’s much-maligned Peter-Pan-as-an-adult misfire, Hook, but Christopher Robin, directed by Marc Forster (World War Z, Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) from a screenplay credited to Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder, easily one-ups Hook, delivering a poignant, moving paean to the carefree joys of childhood, the positives and negatives of nostalgia, the importance of family over work, and the value of people over profits (no, the irony isn’t lost on this writer, given mega-studio Disney’s involvement).
There are spoilers…
British in conception and execution, Christopher Robin unfolds before and after World War II, initially following the title character as a preteen, his idyllic forays into the Hundred Acre Wood where playtime is every time and every day, and the surprisingly harsh realities of pre- and post-war life, including the premature death of his father. That trauma convinces Christopher (Orton O’Brien) to leave childish things behind. That includes his best friend, Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), and the other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, for wartime service on the front lines, and the uneasy peace that follows.
In a meet-cute on a crowded bus, Christopher ((Ewan McGregor) encounters his future wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and before long, becomes the distracted father to a preteen daughter of his own, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). A settled, domestic life that includes a mid-level management role at a high-end luggage company leaves little room for imagination or play or even time for his wife (long-suffering) and daughter (also suffering from neglect).
And that’s almost precisely when Pooh makes a fortunate reappearance in Christopher’s life, exiting the Hundred Acre Wood just a few feet away from Christopher’s London home. Pooh needs Christopher’s help to find his friends, Tigger (Jim Cummings), a hyperactive, bouncing tiger; Piglet (Nick Mohammed), a bundle of fear and anxiety; Eeyore (Brad Garrett), chronic depression personified; Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), a perpetually anxious community organizer; Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), maternal instincts personified; Roo (Sara Sheen), Kanga’s daughter; and Owl (Toby Jones), not quite as wise or sagacious as he thinks he is.
It’s Pooh, of course, who really embodies the wit, soul, and heart of the Hundred Acre Wood. Despite claiming he’s a “bear of little brain,” Pooh has the unintentional habit of saying the right thing when it’s most needed, dropping a bit of Zen-like philosophy here or a Tao-inspired saying there. Christopher, however, reacts like any middle-aged salary man would when he sees Pooh again: He assumes he’s completely lost his mind.
Pooh’s presence in Christopher’s life eventually proves equal parts disastrous – Pooh’s like a clumsy toddler, except with an old man’s voice – but ultimately uplifting. He helps Christopher channel his energies back into his family and into saving his co-workers from the unemployment line. It’s rare for a period family-oriented film to tackle middle-aged anxieties about losing your family to work or losing your friends and co-workers to the invisible hand of the free market (i.e., capitalism), all while arguing for a more humane, more human approach that puts people over profits, values over possessions, and family over work.
And in Christopher’s case, the journey to those realizations involves revisiting the Hundred Acre Wood and reconnecting with the hopeful, optimistic, imaginative boy he once was, and in turn becoming a better husband, father, and friend. Christopher, however, has to embrace Pooh and everything Pooh represents before he can change.
Christopher Robin, however, doesn’t get caught up or hung up on delivering Oprah-style life lessons.
There’s plenty of physical and verbal humor in Christopher Robin, from Pooh’s single-minded desire for honey getting him into all sorts of trouble, to his open-hearted friendliness when he meets strangers in London (causing near breakdowns), to his child-like love of red balloons (one plays a key role in Christopher and Madeline’s relationship), to his eccentric friends eventually crossing over from the Hundred Acre Wood to 1940’s London (chaos predictably ensues). Add to that near seamless visual effects – everyone, young, old, and in-between – will believe Christopher, Pooh, and friends, occupy the same world.
The London of Christopher Robin feels real, lived in, still rebuilding from a devastating war, but looking forward to a brighter, more hopeful future, exactly like the title character, his family, and friends moments before the end credits begin their march across the screen.