It is hard to know who exactly Christopher Robin was made for. The screenplay is credited to three people: the wonderfully acerbic indie writer/director Alex Ross Perry, the Oscar-winning Tom McCarthy (director/co-writer of Spotlight), and the Hidden Figures writer Allison Schroeder. Together, they’ve made a film that is perhaps too elegiac and gloomy for children, but also too straightforwardly fanciful for their parents. It’s an odd, melancholic experience that at times recalls Terrence Malick as it does A. A. Milne, but there will certainly be some viewers in its exact wheelhouse, and I was one of them.
The setting is a great help in terms of selling Christopher Robin’s somber tone and formulaic setup. After a prologue centered on a young Christopher (Orton O’Brien) having one last big adventure with his animal friends, a montage depicts his tough passage into adulthood. He’s packed off to boarding school, his father dies (offscreen) before Christopher has entered his teenage years, and then he fights in World War II like so many of his countrymen, while his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), raises their daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), on the home front.
The film is set a few years after that. Madeline is a bright if serious-minded young girl, and Christopher works endless days and nights at a luggage company in London trying to find cost efficiencies for his posh twit of a boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). As such, his family has fallen by the wayside, and they have to weekend at his childhood countryside getaway without him. Oh, bother! The only solution is for Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) to wake from his long slumber and stumble into the real world, first demanding that Christopher help him find his other friends (Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, and the rest of the animal gang), and then working to shake him out of his bourgeois reverie.
The film will likely draw comparison to the ongoing Paddington series, another bear-focused bit of charming British storytelling. But that is a contemporary retelling of a children’s classic with a broad metaphor about how the power of community spirit is magnified by the acceptance of outsiders. Winnie the Pooh, who by his own admittance is a bear of “very little brain” and is mostly focused on having fun and being with his friends, exists to remind everyone to take a break once in a while. “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day,” he muses to Christopher. He, like Paddington, should be regarded as a hero.
The best chunk of the film is the first act, in which Pooh wanders around postwar London, baffled at all the work everyone has to do (“Why is he in a cage?” he asks about a ticket-taker at the train station). Christopher has become quite the stolid grump, but Pooh has no time for grumpiness; he barely seems to understand what it is, instead responding to each of Christopher’s exasperated sighs with his trademark solipsistic maxims. “That’s a silly explanation,” Christopher grumbles as Pooh explains how he managed to appear in the real world. “Why thank you,” Pooh replies.