The 1920s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books by A. A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard contain a calm magic and childlike yet infinite fount of wisdom and wonder.
The new movie “Christopher Robin” is a tonal hodgepodge, with a few moments of delight (mainly direct quotes from the books) among nervous anguish and dumb slapstick.
“Christopher Robin” is a curious concoction, perhaps inspired by someone wondering what would happen if the human hero of the Pooh stories outgrew his toys.
Yet despite five screenwriters — including indie darling Alex Ross Perry (“Listen Up Philip”), Oscar winner Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Spotlight”) and Oscar-nominee Allison Schroeder (“Hidden Figures”) — the movie can’t land on a reasonable idea, except the usual kids’ flick message that family is more important than work.
It begins with a long prologue, showing Christopher (Ewan McGregor, trying his best), growing up, going to boarding school, starting a family (marrying Hayley Atwell, who has nothing to do for the rest of the film), fighting in World War II, and getting a job in a suitcase company.
He becomes fastidious and uptight, with no time for fun, not even with his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).
At work, he is forced to make cuts to keep the company afloat and must cancel a family weekend to stay behind and figure it out.
Meanwhile, Pooh (voiced, delightfully, and as always, by Jim Cummings), wakes up on a foggy day and finds his friends all gone. Looking for help, he winds up in London, where an annoyed, inconvenienced Christopher must take him back to the Hundred Acre Wood.
As Christopher reunites with Piglet (voiced by Nick Mohammed), Tigger (Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), Roo (Sara Sheen), Owl (Toby Jones) and Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), his reactions swing all over the place. He’s sometimes pleased and sometimes agitated; there’s a tone of rushed tension.
Irritatingly, the animals can talk, and the humans can see and hear them talk, but the reaction is shock and terror. This joke, both trying to hide the animals in public and their eventual revealing, is repeated to deadening effect.
Finally, Madeline and Pooh, Piglet, Eyeore and Tigger must race to get a folder of important papers back to Christopher before his important Monday morning meeting, prompting car chases, characters splatted against windshields, things knocked over in the street, etc. (None of this was in the books or hand-drawn Disney animated features.)
One can unfavorably compare “Christopher Robin” to 1977’s “The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh,” a fun collection of previously-released short films, or the charming 2011 “Winnie-the-Pooh”; it also pales in comparison to gentle, lovable “Babe,” “Paddington 1-2” or Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” And the theme of outgrowing one’s toys was covered far more poignantly in Pixar’s “Inside Out” and “Toy Story” films.
A major problem: Director Marc Forster has never shown wonder or whimsy in his wildly inconsistent filmography, which ranges from an excruciating drama about sudden infant death syndrome to the clunky, dull “World War Z.” The only thing that comes close is 2004’s “Finding Neverland,” a clumsy, but Oscar-friendly attempt to tell the story of Peter Pan’s creator.
“Christopher Robin” misses the point. In trying to rescue the hero from his seriousness, the busy film hasn’t the faintest idea how to play.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Jim Cummings
Written by: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder
Directed by: Marc Forster
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
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