“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
—The Skin Horse, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit
Jim Cummings is older now, about 30 years to be exact, from when he first voiced Winnie the Pooh and Tigger in Walt Disney’s animated TV series The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Though director Marc Forster may have recast the voices of Pooh and Tigger’s other furry and feathery friends with new performers for Christopher Robin, the latest in Disney’s successful line of live-action remakes of their classic animated films, Cummings remains. Though the years have been kind to Cummings, perhaps the most chameleonic American voice actor since Mel Blanc, his voice has nonetheless turned more gravely since his first forays to English author A. A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood: there are pebbles in Pooh Bear’s mouth, ragged cords in Tigger’s throat; there’s a little more strain in the breathes between the “Oh bothers” and the “Woo-hoo-hoos!” But that’s the point, really. Why else would Forster age the otherwise ageless denizens of that enchanted land of make-believe, turning their colorful fur ragged and grey like stuffed animals smothered with years of love?
Christopher Robin is a film about growing up—the growing up of its titular character, to be precise, as he casts off childish things during adolescence and adulthood, abandons toys and daydreams for schoolbooks and office desks. The England beyond the Wood has turned grey with age and exhaustion, poisoned by two World Wars and economic turmoil. But Pooh and Tigger remain, waiting for their friend’s return. And when we hear Cummings’ voice, we hear not just characters, but our childhoods. Here is a film unapologetic in its attempts to go for the emotional jugular vein. It seeks to strip the layers of maturity away from its viewers until nothing remains but the little children who loved these stories when they seemed so silly and big-hearted in such a not-so-silly, not-so-big-hearted world. It’s sappy, melodramatic, more than a bit clichéd, but it doesn’t care, for only adults can see things that way. For little children, it’s always the first time. And Christopher Robin tries to tell us that the first time need not be the last.
The film stars Ewan McGregor as Christopher Robin, all grown up as an efficiency expert at the dull, drab, London-based Winslow Luggages. At home he has a wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and a daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), neither of whom he sees much of anymore as his tyrannical boss Giles Winslow Jr. (Mark Gatiss) forces him to work long hours and weekends. Finally, after years of toiling, Christopher schedules a weekend with his family at their countryside cottage in Sussex—the same cottage with the door to the Hundred Acre Wood. But at the last minute Giles makes him cancel his plans and figure out how to decrease company expenditures by 20%…by any means necessary. Agonizing over his broken promise to his wife and daughter and tormented by the realization that he’ll have to fire many of his co-workers, Christopher is stunned when none other than Winnie the Pooh shows up in his garden after the silly old bear somehow wanders there in the search for honey.
So begins a saccharine series of happenings wherein Christopher and his growing cadre of stuffed friends scamper back and forth the 50 miles between London and Sussex, first trying to find the missing inhabitants of the Wood, then returning to London for an important business meeting, and finally skipping said business meeting to find Madeline in both places after she goes missing. All the while Christopher discovers his lost childhood and the Things In Life That Truly Matter, namely his family, his friends, and the realization that life isn’t a sum accumulation of work, but the moments of joy and contentment between the toilings. It’s all predictable pap—particularly the embarrassingly contrived last ten minutes where Christopher miraculously figures out how to save Winslow Luggages from going bankrupt without firing anyone—but it’s pleasant, pleasing pap at once gentle and achingly melancholic. McGregor is warm and tragic as a Christopher Robin forced to smother his deep currents of love and imagination for the sake of his adult responsibilities. Likewise the new voice cast is downright charming, particularly Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond fame as the chronically depressed donkey Eeyore who steals every scene he’s in with a bottomless series of despairing one-liners. If there’s one flaw with the filmmaking, it would be that Matthias Koenigswieser’s cinematography is terminally under-lit, transforming late 40s London into a washed out, bleary series of dull concrete buildings, duller shadows, and duller still rays of blinding light. This might be excused for a creative choice if the Hundred Acre Wood wasn’t also filmed much the same way, with only occasional splashes of green and red dotting the thistly countryside. (But considering I saw this film in a major movie theater in New York City and many said theaters have been caught lazily leaving 3-D projection lenses on for 2-D screenings thereby darkening entire films—a practice that all but doomed most screenings of Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story to opaque blackness—that might have just been my showing.)
Then, of course, there’s Cummings as Pooh Bear and Tigger. Oh, to see these old friends once more, still seeking honey, still bouncing up and down on their tail. So much obvious love and attention was put into these two, not just by Cummings and the animators, but by the screenwriters who outdid themselves in replicating Milne’s Zen-like, epigrammatic authorial voice. When Cummings sagely explains as Pooh that Nothing is the Something he likes to do best or growls at Tigger when he sees his own reflection ‘cause he’s the only Tigger there is, it’s impossible not to feel five years old, five years loved and safe and cared for, all over again. Christopher Robin knows this, and isn’t ashamed of it. In fact, it’s the very reason it seems to exist.