As a child Christopher Robin (Orton O'Brien) promised he would never forget his dearest friend: Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff. You know the song. Nor indeed forget the other lovable stuffed toy animals in the Hundred Acre Wood. Yet time took its toll. As he grew up Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) endured a harsh stay at boarding school, the loss of his father and the horrors of war. Little wonder he now stands as a troubled, sad, introverted man struggling with a crisis at work and an overbearing boss (Mark Gatiss) while growing emotionally disconnected from a wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell - nice work, Christopher), and daughter Madeleine (Bronte Carmichael) increasingly starved of his love. At a complete loss what to do with his misbegotten life, Christopher Robin slumps on park bench only to be greeted by a familiar-looking, very, very silly old bear.
Somehow audiences wound up with two Winnie the Pooh-related films released practically back to back. First Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), a biopic of creator A.A. Milne, then Christopher Robin: a warmly nostalgic ode to the Walt Disney version of Milne's "silly old bear." While Milne purists (Pooh-rists?) have a problematic relationship with Disney's gently Americanized take on Pooh Bear, the fact remains this particular incarnation continues to instill warm and fuzzy feelings in generations of fans. Especially as voiced in delightfully befuddled fashion by Jim Cummings, who returns here doing double vocal duties as the lovably exuberant Tigger.
In fact this Disney live action outing is very respectful of Milne's original books and the genteel fantasy world inhabited by its deeply idiosyncratic characters. As shepherded to the screen by Marc Foster, whose work continues to prove fascinatingly eclectic encompassing among others Stranger Than Fiction (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008) and World War Z (2011) (with this closer in tone to his acclaimed J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland (2004), both the plot and visuals manage to successfully keep one foot in the wry whimsy of Milne's text and the other in the more mainstream antics of Disney's animated films. Introduced strangely without fanfare the remarkably lifelike CGI reincarnations of the beloved plush toy animals could surely rouse even the most seemingly joyless soul. And boast a pitch-perfect voice cast: Brad Garrett (rivaling Cummings as the movie's M.V.P.) as a delightfully dour Eeyore, Peter Capaldi as Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo as Kanga, Toby Jones as Owl, Nick Mohammed as Piglet and Sara Sheen as Roo.
Beautifully shot in autumnal colours by D.P. Matthias Koenigswieser the film has an initially wistful, melancholy tone that may have inadvertently turned off potential viewers. Yet the script, co-written Alex Ross Perry (co-writer of Up (2009) and an actor and director of quirky indie fare), Tom McCarthy (award-winning writer and director of The Station Agent (2003) and Spotlight (2015)) and Alison Schroeder (co-writer of the excellent Hidden Figures (2016)) based on a story by Greg Booker and Mark Steven Johnson, pulls off something only Mary Poppins (1964) managed quite as marvelously. And which Steven Spielberg struggled to do with Hook (1991). Which is to craft a worldly-wise fable in which the protagonist endeavours to reconnect with the child inside, not to regress into infantilism, but rather nourish himself as an adult. As Brian Wilson once sang: "child is father to the man." Once in a while we all need to rekindle our childhood ideals.
Away from Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood gang's amiable antics around post-war London (which include a brief but memorable interaction with Britcom staples Simon Farnaby, Mackenzie Crook and Matt Berry), Foster and the screenwriters fashion a subtly disarming story about a man slowly recovering from PTSD. A painful montage of young Christopher Robin's progress through the hardships of life provide a clear logical reason why the formerly irrepressible youth morphed into the solemn, introverted workaholic. The script casts Pooh Bear at his most philosophical and (unintentionally?) wise as he continuously asks unexpectedly deep and moving questions of McGregor's Christopher Robin. The scene where he chastises a crestfallen Pooh for his clumsiness and naivety brings tears to the eyes. In the title role McGregor is remarkably humane and affecting while human co-stars Hayley Atwell and Bronte Carmichael sparkle in deceptively slight yet crucial roles, embodying Christopher Robin's conscience. It is a film laden with big heartfelt and crowd-pleasing moments but also subtlety (note how the animals of the Hundred Acre wood all have 'real world' counterparts at Christopher Robin's office) weaving an elegant psychological fantasy about a man reassembling his true identity. The icing on the cake are songs both familiar and new composed by legendary Disney tune-smith Richard M. Sherman who also puts in a welcome cameo. And yes, Tigger does perform his theme song: hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!