Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“Doing nothing often leads to the best something.”
That’s the platitude the characters in director Marc Forster’s CHRISTOPHER ROBIN say repeatedly. Unfortunately for everyone, the filmmakers don’t bother finding the best something whenever they change nothing about the formulaic, pat narrative. Though there’s amazing craft in the visual effects and a humorous zing to a few one-liners, the beating heart of its sentiments is tangibly lacking – and at times disingenuous. With little to no genuine sense of fun, and no truly memorable standout sequences, this amounts to an exercise in impressive CGI that’s virtually bereft of entertainment.
Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) said goodbye to his childish sense of whimsy long ago. The real world drilled it out of him. His adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood with pals Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), Piglet (voiced by Nick Mohammed), Tigger (voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (Voiced by Brad Garrett), Rabbit (voiced by Peter Capaldi) and Owl (voiced by Toby Jones) are a distant memory. His job comes first now, to the detriment of his relationships with long-suffering wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Joy is as fleeting as the imaginative dreams he once had. A fog has set in, both metaphorically in Christopher’s mind, and literally in his former play place. It’s made all of Pooh’s furry (and feathered) friends disappear, and forced that silly ‘ol bear to venture into the hustle and bustle of London to ask his childhood bestie for help. Havoc breaks loose from there.
On the whole, the narrative is a bit of a joyless slog – the first twenty minutes especially. Screenwriters Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, working from a story by Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson, fail to deliver anything unexpected or extraordinary. You’ve seen this reductive story done a thousand times before. This is HOOK set in the world of Winnie the Pooh – only without a sense of imaginative discovery. The blueprint they’ve used could easily be mistaken for a Hallmark movie, as it follows similar beats. The only part with life in it is when Madeline finally meets Pooh and Co. – and that’s where this story should have begun. This should have been more MARY POPPINS and less HOOK. Spouting trademark Pooh-isms at random, it’s a wash of “let’s just see what sticks” ideas. It’s questionable if its adult sentiments about never losing your bliss, or rediscovering your home, will ring true for kids in the audience. But some of the on-brand Pooh Bear-y wonderful, Tigger-iffic pratfalls might resonate with the most Piglet-sized youngsters. Thank goodness the beloved characters’ spirits all remain intact and on-point. What little joy we derive from this film is largely due to our existing affinity for these characters and their previous adventures.
At certain points, evidence points to a more esoteric journey of rediscovering Christopher Robin’s imagination and bliss. Forster goes handheld for many of the sequences, attempting to push the material’s intimacy and immediacy. His framing, along with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser’s desaturated color palette, also indicates this. Christopher’s imprisonment, and subsequent drowning epiphany, in a Heffalump trap is the clearest narrative clue. However, it lets go of those artistic choices time and time again, choosing to favor a more traditional route of storytelling.
Where the story lets us down, the visual effects by Framestore (who also worked on this year’s rival shenanigan-prone bear movie, PADDINGTON 2) bring the proceedings back up. Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Roo (voiced by Sara Sheen) and Kanga (voiced by Sophie Okonedo) – all of which take on a stuffed animal look – appear tactile and adorable, evoking the warm, wooly, fuzzy feelings you wish the narrative would provide. Rabbit and Owl – who take on the book’s appearance of real animals – aren’t hindered by “Uncanny Valley,” or unrealistic physicality. Vocal performances earn top marks too – Cummings and Garrett being the MVPs. It’s also another cute wink-and-nod to the audience that two cute, cuddly bear movies can co-exist, casting PADDINGTON 2 co-writer and co-star Simon Farnaby as a taxi driver here.
Fans of the book and the animated films will find that the live-action counterpart deals Pooh a bit of a disservice. For what should be a soothing balm for today’s ugly world, Forster’s film adds little to the conversation. Cloying when it should be creative, schmaltzy when it should be sweet, the jar of “hunny” is almost empty in this film.
CHRISTOPHER ROBIN opens on August 3.