Picture this: It’s the late 1940s or early ’50s, and Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), the little boy from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh stories, is all grown up. He works as a number-cruncher for a London luggage company, can’t get a weekend off to go to the country with his wife (Hayley Atwell) and their precocious daughter (Bronte Carmichael). The days of the Hundred Acre Wood are far behind him and life is anything but magical. But then, from under a tree comes Pooh, his old childhood friend and ours. The years have worn at his teddy fur and his knit red sweater is frayed, but he is still the same bear of very little brain—a disarming digital creation with unblinking black buttons for eyes, voiced by Jim Cummings, the longtime voice actor of the Disney version of the character. He can’t find his friends: Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, and the rest. Won’t Christopher Robin help him?
The sight of McGregor, creased but still boyish, returning to an eerily fogbound Hundred Acre Wood is calculated to well up eyes, and it works. Embarrassingly, so does the shot of Pooh running his paw through heather like a character in a Terrence Malick movie. The stuffed animal playmates of Christopher Robin’s childhood are as scruffy and floppy as beloved toys, matted and covered in fuzzballs. He finds the sad donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett, booming like a foghorn) bobbing in a stream; the others are hiding in fear of those elephantine bogeymen, the Heffalumps. They are waiting for Christopher to come back and save them. He’s big enough now to carry them in his arms.
Beneath its wistful tone, Christopher Robin supplies the purest wish-fulfillment fantasy that a children’s movie can offer adults: that our childhoods miss us as much as we miss them. It’s nostalgic-emotional pornography, targeted at the audience’s affection for Pooh in particular (specifically, the Cummings-voiced Disney cartoons) and lost playthings in general. Milne’s silly old bear has been a global phenomenon since the 1920s; we, the adults in the audience, are Christopher Robin. Remember Pooh and his walks in the woods and games of Poohsticks? Remember the “Mr. Sanders” sign above Pooh’s door? The Heffalump trap? Christopher does, the hard way, after he falls right into it. The director, Marc Forster, is no stranger to the goopy and sentimental: He’s the guy who wrought Finding Neverland upon the world.
Christopher Robin is a better film than that sugarcoated J.M. Barrie biopic; it’s a cut above the recent crop of Disney live-action “reimaginings” (Cinderella, Beauty And The Beast), but nowhere as personal as David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake or as lovable as Paul King’s recent Paddington and Paddington 2, to which it owes a debt. The screenplay (credited to Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder) contrasts the gentleness of the Hundred Acre Wood with the worries of the real world, a combination of Millennial social and workplace anxieties and post-war malaise. (This Christopher Robin is a World War II veteran, as was his real-life namesake, Christopher Robin Milne, the son of the author.) But its effects, however poignant, are just effects. Most of us already know the characters. Unfortunately, we also know the story.
It’s an oldie, but not a goodie: one of those boilerplate kids’ movie plots about a workaholic adult who needs a serious jolt to their inner child, complete with a buck-passing, golf-playing idiot boss (Mark Gatiss) and a big presentation that’s due tomorrow. Its climax is an elongated chase through the streets of gray London, which gives Forster an opportunity to indulge in a Paddington-esque mix of slapstick, whimsy, and cameos. But while that other genial bear’s recent starring vehicles have taken their storybook cues from the dioramas of Wes Anderson and the misadventures of Mr. Bean, Christopher Robin’s bar is lower: It’s imitation Gore Verbinski. There are the inevitable life lessons about family and making time, plus a big speech in which Pooh serves as an unlikely guru of the importance of paid vacation days. Chances are you’ve seen seen this all before. But at least this time, you’re seeing it with Pooh.