Monday, August 6, 2018

Christopher Robin Is Effectively Morose And Heartfelt

Between my life-long love for Winnie The Pooh, my adoration for Ewan McGregor as an actor and me constantly being drawn to melancholy pieces of art, on paper it appears Christopher Robin was made exactly for my sensibilities. There's a world of difference between what's on paper and how those concepts are handled in an actual film, Lord knows there's loads of pop culture that, conceptually, should have been right up my alley that ended up just falling flat due to lackluster execution. Thankfully, Christopher Robin, directed by Machine Gun Preacher helmer Marc Forster and based on a story by Alex Ross Perry, has been executed in a thoughtful manner with a deftly wistful touch that serves the story it wishes to tell quite well.

Like most modern-day children's movies, Christopher Robin opens with a tearful sequence of a young boy, Christopher Robin (played as an adult by Ewan McGregor) saying goodbye to his childhood friend, Winnie The Pooh (Jim Cummings) before shifting over into a somber montage depicting that young boy experiencing all kinds of hardship as he grows up, including one moment where we cut back and forth between the now grown-up boy in the middle of an intense World War II battle and his daughter celebrating her third birthday. Clearly, we're more in the territory of A Monster Calls and Where The Wild Things Are where this is more of a film using childlike fantasy imagery to explore a story about growing up that isn't necessarily aimed exclusively at children, a slight tonal departure from Pooh's Heffalump Movie just thirteen years ago.

Once that opening montage has concluded, we see that Christopher Robin has grown up into that regular fixture of kids movies (ranging from Mary Poppins to Hook to Elf and so much more), the dad who's too busy at work to be a proper father. While struggling with the prospect of having to lay off numerous employees at his job, he gets a sudden visit from someone he hasn't seen since his childhood, Winnie The Pooh. The surprise appearance of this red-shirt adorned Ursa is due to Pooh needing help in finding his missing friends in the Hundred-Acre-Wood. Christopher Robin reluctantly agrees to go along with the expedition which may be able to help him as a person in more ways than he realizes.

In basic plot details, Christopher Robin really isn't all that innovative, with the plotline about Christopher Robin being an overly busy dad being so well-worn as a narrative device you half-expect his daughter to burst in during his climactic business meeting to let him know that "Pooh cares about everyone, all you care about is yourself". But Christopher Robin is one of those movies that manages to make hackneyed plot points actually work thanks to a constant source of well-done moments of pathos as well as a transfixing wistful tone that fits these characters and their world to a surprisingly sharp degree. Rather than just try to make Winnie the Pooh and his friend gritty for the sake of "coolness", Christopher Robin is interested in using a more a melancholy tone to thoughtfully explore the story of a man who was forced to grow up too early regaining a spark of wonder and whimsy in his life.

By telling this story in a more morose manner, there's opportunities for unique bits of character exploration, such as the film examining what informs the dejected nature of Christopher Robin's current life via the aforementioned sweeping opening montage (something that I like to image screenwriter Thomas McCarthy suggested to incorporate from his time writing Up!). Accompanying the more morose atmosphere is an emphasis on quiet conversations and small-scale interactions, which means there's more of a well-realized gradual approach taken to Christopher Robin's growth as a person. Meanwhile, the unique tone of Christopher Robin also allows for memorably powerful sequences like one where Pooh wanders a post-apocalyptic version of the Hundred-Acre-Wood while helplessly calling out for his friends, that one especially hit me directly in the heart and reinforces how far gone this fantasy land has become in the years since Christopher Robin left it. The plot may be familiar in broad strokes in Christopher Robin, but it's the unique details that the film brings to the table, most notably in terms of its tone, that manages to make all the difference in the world.

If it sounds like Christopher Robin is just chock full of family movie sorrow not seen in Artax got sucked into the Swamp of Sadness in The NeverEnding Story, fear not, Pooh and his pals are just as heartwarmingly charming as ever and realized through some top-notch CGI work and some lovely designs that reimagine them all with some wear and tear on their bodies. If there's anyone in this cast that deserves all the praise in the world for their work in this movie, it's gotta be Jim Cummings who does remarkable work as Winnie the Pooh. Having played the character for over three decades now, Cummings fits this role like a glove while his sense of comedic timing in this part is simply exemplary. Another stand-out in the voice acting is easily Brad Garrett as Eeyore, with Garrett's super deep voice being a perfect fit for the part and, like Cummings, he knows just how to nail the delivery of the numerous funny lines he's given.

These CGI characters get the bulk of the attention of the third act, which plays out more like a conventional family movie compared to the more somber drama that preceded it. While still a reasonably entertaining film in this home stretch, and also far from devoid of big effective emotional moments, so much of the rest of Christopher Robin prior to this third act has been fascinatingly quiet and contemplative and there's not as much of that subdued thoughtfulness to be found in the finale's numerous rowdy extended chase sequences through London. On the whole, though, Christopher Robin takes a familiar set-up for a family movie and imbues it with some quiet gravitas that touched me and, yes, got me teary-eyed more than once. Like the silly o'l bear himself, Christopher Robin has a very big heart and is highly endearing.

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