Directed: Mark Forster

Produced: Walt Disney Pictures, 2DUX

Distributed: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Released: August 3rd, 2018

Christopher Robin hit me at a time in my life when I was wondering if I would ever be happy again, at least in the pure way that I remember from childhood. Young adulthood has its good moments, but I worried that they would always be hampered by the pervasive anxiety, exhaustion, and sense of inadequacy that comes from adult obligations. While much of my appreciation for the movie comes from nostalgia for the time in my life when I most watched/read Winnie the Pooh, I also think that Christopher Robin stands tall on its own merits.

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The film stars Ewan McGregor as the titular Christopher Robin, now fully grown, married to a woman named Evelyn with a child named Madeline. He’s also a junior leader at a luggage company. When the executives on top start demanding large cuts to cost, Robin has to forego vacation with his family so he might save several of his employees from the chopping block. With a disappointed family left alone and no easy budgetary solution in sight, Robin’s world is thrown an additional curveball by the reappearance of his childhood friend, Winnie the Pooh.

What follows is a sustained journey of emotional relentlessness as his disheartened family and stuffed companion slowly reckon with the man Christopher Robin has become. Seriously, this movie is a lightning rod of empathy, guilty, and vulnerability. It begins with Christopher Robin pushing away the love of his wife and daughter. It’s heartbreaking how his own father’s death and his service in WWII hardened him, forcing him to fixate on his work and miss the clear signs of affection from the people around him.

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He goes beyond the inattentiveness and into a deliberate annihilation of any wonder or whimsy from his life. We see him stifling his daughter’s adventurousness and sense of joy, the final blow coming from missing the family trip to the country before his daughter went off to boarding school. Anyone who can relate to the all-consumptive power of full time employment will definitely have fun confronting the lie that toil today will bring relaxation later. Their children end up inheriting the generational struggle, as though it were a chronic illness.

By the time Winnie the Pooh is reunited with his long-departed friend, the clash of personalities is almost too much to handle. The silly old bear has been waiting 20+ years for the return of a boy who doesn’t exist anymore, the fulfillment of his ultimate wish now materializing as a frustrated adult who just wants to get rid of him. There’s a crushing futility in trying to explain the obligations of adulthood to such and innocent creature, and watching Pooh smash against the reality of maturation just made me want to give the poor bear a hug.

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Naturally, Jim Cummings does a sublime job reprising what may be his most iconic voice role. In what may be the darkest interpretation of the character, Winnie the Pooh finds a delicate balance between “bear of very little brain” and dispenser of sage wisdom. He sways clumsily through weary musings on his current situation, while occasionally planting his feet firmly in the realm of genuine profundity. Pooh often catches Christopher Robin off guard with his insight, even as he also baffles the man with his comical aimlessness.

With that in mind, I wish the other characters in the Hundred Acre Wood played a larger role. Pooh’s homeland appeared to lean hard into the common fan theories – i.e. an externalization of Christopher Robin’s psychological state. Instead of being tacky and pairing each Hundred Acre Wood animal with a corresponding mental disorder, the fantastical woodland creature simply attuned themselves to Christopher Robin’s childhood. As he became more comfortable with his youthfulness, the Wood brightened, the color returned, and the beings within stopped being lost, anxious or frightened.

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This utilitarian, allegorical function does not leave the side characters room to be as fleshed out as Pooh. Fans of Kanga, Roo, Owl or Rabbit will be left seriously wanting, despite some extended scenes with Piglet and Tigger. The only other character who noticeably stood out was Eeyore. As the Hundred Acre Wood creature well-versed in melancholy, he seemed best equipped to identify the adult ennui plaguing his old friend. Despite being a secondary character in Robin’s childhood, Eeyore now has the emotional wisdom to recognize when the veneer of adulthood begins to crack, drawing out that usefulness with play.

Admittedly, sequences in the Hundred Acre Wood also highlight the fact that this is still a children’s movie. Some of the writing is very blunt, and the other animals often spell out the themes of the narrative in the most unambiguous terms. It works for the kids, and the messages are worth hearing, but the achingly straightforward dialogue can wear on adults used to conversation that is more naturalistic. While the film can beat you over the head with some concepts, others enter the picture with phenomenal subtlety, lending Christopher Robin a surprising amount of depth.

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The usual issue with the average “Don’t work so much {Dad}” story is that they fail to acknowledge many modern financial realities. Wages are stagnating, wealth inequality is growing, and parents have to work harder if they want to maintain a life as bills, rent, and costs of living keep rising. Even in lower levels of management, job security is never a guarantee, especially if, like Christopher Robin, these managers want to be a benevolent force within the business. Christopher Robin, however, takes the time to contrast its protagonist’s awful parenting style with that of his wife Evelyn.

While Christopher Robin was off “bashin’ the fash” in WWII, Evelyn had to make money and raise their daughter Madeline all on her own. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but she worked as an artist (likely making war propaganda) and maintained a household without her husband. This reality underscores her frustration with Christopher Robin and his inability to engage Madeline’s youthfulness. She already proved that she could sustain a family without stifling the better qualities of her daughter, which uniquely highlights how her husband’s work reflects poorly on him. It’s not a guilt trip from the privileged; it’s a call for compassionate parenting.

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The astute writing culminates in a stunningly sensible conclusion, one that deftly comments on how reactive, stingy, and short-sighted upper management can be when the financial heat gets turned up. The grand solution that allows Robin to spend more time with his family worked to correct two toxic business compulsions: 1) the tendency for adults to stomach strenuous work, no matter the cost to their health, and 2) the way workers are treated as expendable when rich men fail in business. Without intending to spoil the story, it was sweet how Pooh’s habit of doing nothing informed the resolution so strongly.

Granted, this positive ending may ring hollow in the face of how Disney treats their real employees. They fought tirelessly against a tight-fisted, billion-dollar corporation just to have wages increase to $15/hour by 2021 ($30,000/year – a survivable wage), and Disney’s reluctance to offer decent pay flies in the face of Christopher Robin’s conclusion. Despite what I think of the actual company, however, the narrative still offers a conscientious closing that encourages benevolence from cold, calculating monoliths of big business. I look forward to the sequel, in which Pooh and friends laud the value of worker’s unions by helping Christopher Robin manage his PTSD.

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I went in expecting Christopher Robin to be a heart-warming/heart-rending exploration of a part of my life I was beginning. While that was ruthlessly true, the film also offered sharp writing and a solid thesis for how adults can integrate childhood into their work and family lives. Winnie the Pooh may be a “silly old bear,” but his perspective tapped into the atrophied youthfulness of his old friend. A little time spent doing nothing made the world a better place; just try not to think about the theme park and factory workers who apparently don’t count.

★★★★★ – Phenomenal