What a strange movie Christopher Robin is.
On the one hand, it's a rather straightforward family-friendly fantasy film, one that picks up a few decades after the Winnie the Pooh books and movies were set, one that's filled with talking stuffed animals and whimsy and life lessons about the need to enjoy our precious little time on this spinning blue rock.
On the other, it's a borderline horror movie, a gutwrenching examination of a man at the end of his rope who reverts to childlike innocence in order to escape the realities of modernity and the family life he loves yet cannot fully experience due to professional obligations.
We open with Christopher Robin's last days at home before being sent off to boarding school. He's saying goodbye to his pals in the Hundred Acre Wood: Pooh (Jim Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Tigger (Cummings again), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), and the rest. The time has come to put childish things away and though the boy swears he will never forget his pals and their magical little forest, he does, as all boys do.
What follows is a montage rivaling the short, silent film that opens Up. I defy you to watch Christopher Robin's journey out of boyhood, through parental deaths, and into warzones and fatherhood and the boardroom, without feeling an emotional tug or two. This mosaic has everything: childhood's end, new love, parental regrets, sadness at the ineffable passage of time and the looming fear of our own mortality.
And then, naturally, the cute wackiness starts. Christopher Robin is pressured at work to skip a weekend vacation with the family in order to find a way to cut costs at a venerable London luggage company by 20 percent. Pooh, sensing his friend's trouble and faced with problems of his own, finds Christopher Robin in London. Christopher Robin decides to take his old friend back to the countryside, where he slips back into the Hundred Acre Wood and, yadda yadda yadda, recovers his sense of childlike wonder.
Now. This is all well and good: cute and lovely and family friendly. That being said, I couldn't help but notice a darker strain, as if director Marc Forster was trying to suggest what is seriously wrong with our hero. Pooh only appears after Christopher Robin sees a drawing of the long-forgotten, funny old bear, the image seeming to spark something in his mind that conjures the talking ursine honey-eater back into existence. And Pooh himself cannot find his friends—one assumes also forgotten by Christopher Robin, thus also erased from existence.
When Christopher Robin and Pooh return to the Hundred Acre Wood, there is a dank, mysterious fog. Forster's camera tightens up on Christopher Robin's face, limiting the audience's range of view and making us party to the man's confusion. At one point he pulls out a compass (a relic from his time in the army) to help them find their way, but Pooh's inability to read it sends them in circles. Lost in the fog of war, ensnared by his adulthood concerns, Christopher Robin falls into a deep, dark pit. It isn't until Christopher Robin exchanges his compass (representing the war of adulthood) for a nice, pretty, simple balloon (representing the innocence of childhood) that Christopher Robin is able to once again journey out of the Wood and back into the real world.
Now look: I'm not saying that the last two thirds of this delightful and charming family film portray the psychotic break of a man suffering from virtually all of modernity's woes—PTSD, economic distress, family strife—at once. But … it would explain a lot.
McGregor plays Christopher Robin—as in this review, practically always two names, preferably pronounced as one, christopherrobin, unless some nogoodnik capitalist stooge is summoning him—with his patented stilted charm, awkward grins badly covering up his character's obvious mental distress. Hayley Atwell is fine in a thankless turn as Christopher Robin's wife, walking that fine line between loving exasperation and nagging shrewishness with deft skill.