“There’s more to life than balloons and honey, Pooh.”
“Are you sure?”
This small but important exchange between an exasperated adult Christopher Robin and a gloriously-innocent Winnie the Pooh captures the very heart and soul of Christopher Robin, directed by Marc Forster to a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder.
The latest in Disney’s increasingly long line of live action iterations of classic characters, Christopher Robin unashamedly takes us to a place with which we are no doubt all familiar – no, not the Hundred Acre Wood although it does feature and it is lovely to go back there any time you can, but a place we all inhabit as adults where, after roaring into adulthood with blinkers on and hope & excitement rising high, we realise we may have left too much of what really matters to us back in our all-too-easily discarded childhood.
What to do, what to do, what to do?
For realising we have lost a great deal is one thing, but working out to recapture it is another thing entirely.
Christopher Robin, played with joyous vulnerability by Ewan McGregor, discovers this one Saturday in a London park near his home where, fresh from an unexpected Saturday stuck in the offices at Winslow Luggages crunching numbers to save the company, and lamentably not with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Attwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) at the Milne country cottage where he had promised to be (the latest in a series of broken promises), he realises he is quite lost indeed.
For pretty much all of us, that is where this one-way conversation would end; but for Christopher Robin, who we meet as a child at the start of the film in a gloriously-evocative mix of E. H. Shepard’s classic Winnie the Pooh artwork and live action scenes where Pooh and the gang farewell Christopher Robin before his reluctant departure to boarding school, this is where his recreation as a playful adult begins when his beloved Winnie the Pooh answers him from the park bench directly behind him.
Like any of us, Christopher Robin, shell-shocked from service in World War Two and shorn of the magical escapism of his childhood in the Hundred Acre Wood, reacts initially with shock and dismay, wondering if he has in fact gone completely bonkers mad.
But no, Pooh is indeed there, as beguilingly intuitive as ever, a “bear of little brain” who, Christopher Robin later reminds him, happens to have “a very big heart”, and unwittingly, for everything Pooh does is inspired in its lack of guile, points his old friend back to the path he long ago lost.
Of course, the transformation is not immediate not willing at first, with Christopher Robin holding obstinately fast to his joyless adult persona, one which sees him ready to sacrifice family for work (though with some trepidation; he is not a heartless monster, just overly-responsible) and send Madeline off to a boarding school to get equipped for life.
But what of life, exactly?
That’s the big question that Winnie the Pooh, voiced with whimsical warmth by Jim Cummings, poses again and again to Christopher Robin who takes his friend back to the Hundred Acre Wood – his arrival in London is facilitated by the most magical of arboreal means which Pooh, as always, takes at sweetly innocent face value – on a quick Sunday morning trip which is meant to be an in-and-out affair with minimal interruption caused to his weekend workload.
But this is Pooh we’re talking about who, armed with a giant red balloon, one of the many tropes woven into the film along with “hunny”, “Pooh sticks” and a slew of heartwarmingly lovely catchphrases and songs, approaches the reappearance of his much-missed friend with the equanimity with which he approaches everything.
Caught rather wonderfully in what amounts to a perpetual childhood, Pooh, Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), who gets many of the best lines in the film after Pooh, Tigger (Jim Cummings with bouncy zeal), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) & Roo (Sara Sheen) and Owl (Toby Jones) know nothing of the ways of “adulting”, especially that of postwar Britain, and can’t understand why Christopher Robin, after he saves them all from imagined Heffalumps and Woozles, can’t just stay and play with him.
To Pooh especially, who loves nothing more than going nowhere because it’s one of his favourite things and doing nothing because it often leads to the very best of somethings, there is nothing more important than being close to the ones you love.
He doesn’t say it that profoundly but then he doesn’t have to; as Christopher Robin comes to realise how much he lost and how much he has to regain if he’ll just embrace Pooh’s simply but profoundly heartfelt wisdom, Pooh’s simple act of devotion, of waiting for Christopher Robin again and again, do all the talking for him.
In fact, the scenes between Pooh and Christopher Robin are as deeply-moving as they come, offering a reassurance in the dark valley of existential uncertainty from which Christopher Robin draws most effectively – the film may seem down and grim at times but then that is essential to the narrative which, like Toy Story and The Neverending Story, understands that remembering and loving give life while forgetting takes it all away – that the answer to all the loss and pain may be as simple as finding that long-suppressed inner child and letting him loose to play again.
No doubt there are those that will think this is too simplistic as response to the wearying complexities of adult life, but in Christopher Robin, there is robust joy in this simplicity, made full-to-bursting by devastatingly beautiful cinematography (the Hundred Acre Wood scenes are especially captivating), dialogue that sparkles with joyful recognition as we encounter old friends again who have changed little, and happily so, and script that is never heavy-handed or cloying but emotionally-resonant in all the right ways.
It is all too easy to feel lost as an adult, and wonder how on earth we got from happy there to whatever the hell this is, and while Christopher Robin doesn’t discount the here-and-now since the titular character has great riches in hand if he’ll just look up and notice, it makes a strongly heartwarming case for why going back isn’t just possible but necessary.
And if your “back” involves friends like Winnie the Pooh, who is adorably, endearingly perfect in every day in this film, as are Eeyore, Piglet and Tigger, then going there once again makes perfect sense, with your return setting in motion a reinvention of a life long surrendered to everything that is pernicious about adulthood with few of the benefits.
Christopher Robin is thus a supremely charming joy, a beautifully-imagined and gorgeously-expressed film that understands nostalgia exists because we have misplaced something in the present, and suggests, with garrulous sincerity, that maybe all we need to do is bring our past and present together and wait to see what happens.
Oh, and make sure there is plenty of honey because as one very wise bear constantly reminds all through the film, it is the key to satisfactory enjoyment of everything.