Saturday, September 1, 2018

After A.A. Milne: Christopher Robin

Pooh (Jim Cummings) and Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor). (Photo: IMDB)

I’m not much of a fan of the director Marc Forster (Monsters' Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner), and except for Johnny Depp’s intimate, impassioned pressed-violet portrayal of James M. Barrie I find his 2004 Finding Neverland, about Barrie’s relationship with the widow Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies and her four sons (one of whom inspired the creation of Peter Pan), fudged and sentimentalized. So I was caught off guard by his new movie, Christopher Robin, which is also linked to a children’s literary classic. It imagines a grown-up version of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), returned from the Second World War and so focused on his banal office life – a life of drudgery and enslavement to a lazy, tyrannical boss (Mark Gatiss) who takes credit for Christopher’s ideas – that he has no time for his wife Evelyn (a quietly affecting Hayley Atwell) or their somber, intent little girl Madeline (played by a talented young actress with a marvelous name, Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is in dire trouble but doesn’t realize it, so he gets a visit from his childhood companion Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) and finds himself back in the woods with Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Baby Roo (Sara Sheen). I know; it sounds awful. In fact, it sounds like Steven Spielberg’s disastrous 1991 Hook, where it’s the adult Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has turned into a corporate type who needs to be rescued from a values-blind, dead-ended existence. Yet somehow Christopher Robin turns out to be lovely – sweet, not treacly, and understated.

The screenwriters, Alex Ross Perry, Allison Schroeder and Spotlights Tom McCarthy, merely glance at the war, but it hovers over the movie, and I think it makes a crucial difference in the way we think about Christopher. His determination to eke out a reasonable living for his family, grounded in the gray, unimaginative realities of British civilian life after the Armistice, are clearly a desperate retreat from the unimaginable experience of the front, a putting aside of anything that smacks of adventure. Yet he’s still behaving like a good soldier, subservient to the rules. The filmmakers make their protagonist an embodiment of English repression but here it’s tied to war trauma, which McGregor, playing eloquently against type – he’s not normally an actor who tamps down his emotions – hints at. The movie’s not Hook or (even though Disney produced it) Mary Poppins: Christopher isn’t just a man who took the wrong path somewhere along the way and needs to be led back to the right one.

When Pooh shows up, the movie ventures into frisky, off-center comedy that overlaps somewhat with Paul King’s fabulous Paddington pictures. Forster doesn’t have King’s gift for farce, but the material doesn’t demand it – and anyway he does just fine. For the second time this summer I’m prompted to evoke the quirky Ealing comedies of the late forties and fifties (the first was when I reviewed A Very English Scandal); that’s the style Forster is going for in the comic sequences. The voice actors share an appealing muted quality that lends Pooh’s well-intentioned fumbling (as well as his instinctive wisdom) and Eeyore’s pessimism (as well as his instinctive bravery) a wayward charm. There were quite a few young children in the audience when I saw the movie, and I wondered how its modesty and relative quietness would play with them. At first they seemed restless, but to my delight they settled right down and became absorbed in what was up on the screen. Apparently you don’t need to knock junior audiences over the head to entertain them, after all.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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