Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

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Winnie the Pooh


Winnie the Pooh

WInnie the Pooh scurries about the Hundred Acre Wood in search of Hunny.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Cummings, Craig Ferguson, John Cleese, Tom Kenny, Travis Oakes, Bud Luckey, Jack Boulter, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Wyatt Dean Hall, Huell Howser. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall

The thing with classics is that they simply don’t bear remaking or rebooting. They were done correctly the first time out; is there a compelling reason to try to capture lightning in a bottle again?

Of course there is. Here, the essence of the Disney classic Pooh movies is recaptured, from the story that moves along like a lazy summer day to the beautifully drawn but deceptively simple animation. The story isn’t terribly complicated – Pooh is out of honey and goes to find some, leading to a series of misadventures. There is also a subplot of Eeyore’s tail being missing; sharp-eyed viewers will be able to find it but most will not. And no, I’m not giving you any hints.

John Cleese proves to be a wonderful successor to Sebastian Cabot as the movie’s narrator and like the Disney classics, the animators aren’t above reminding you that Pooh originally began life as a book. There is nothing frightening here in the least, even the dreaded Backson, which is the Heffalump of this movie.

I found myself missing the classic character voices, from Paul Winchell as Tigger (Jim Cummings here) to Sterling Holloway as Pooh (Cummings again) to John Fiedler as Piglet (Travis Oates in this version). Your kids, however might not have that issue but be warned that you might wind up comparing the modern cast with the classic one. It’s an occupational hazard for rebooting a classic.

Whether or not Disney continues to create Pooh films will probably depend on the home video sales; quite frankly the movie underperformed in a disappointing summer when put up against the last Harry Potter film and flashier kid fare that was marketed to near distraction. This movie however does at least bring viewers back to a kinder, simpler time and kinder, simpler movies. It’s a quiet alternative to the CGI-heavy pop culture icons that are mostly what we get in animated features these days, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I heartily recommend this for parents of younger children; it is a nice way to keep them occupied while you take a break from being a parent and get to be a kid again yourself.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful nostalgia factor. Lack of stunt voices and simple animation makes this a pleasure for adults.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit too reminiscent of past Pooh classics. Ideal entertainment for kids six and under and their parents who adored the Disney classics; not so much for those who didn’t.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely family friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The familiar Winnie the Pooh theme is sung on the soundtrack by actress Zooey Deschanel and musician M. Ward, better known as She and Him. They also contributed the end credits song “So Long.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a wonderful featurette on the history of Pooh from his origins in the A.A. Milne stories to the wonderful Disney classics. There’s a sing-along feature to the movie that you can activate where the lyrics will appear for each song and Christopher Robins balloon helps kids sing the lyrics in time to the movie. There are also a couple of animated shorts (one Pooh-related, the other one which played in the theaters with this movie) and an odd featurette on how to create the perfect Pooh-themed nursery for your new baby – assuming you have one. If not, there are instructions on how to go get one (just kidding).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was unprofitable on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Emperor’s Club