It’s undeniable that the comforts of our younger years have a strong effect on us in life. With generations now in love with A.A. Milne‘s signature creation, Winnie the Pooh, from books and films, there are few properties that are as fitting as it is to do a nuanced reflection on carrying the spirit of youth into the unpredictable doldrums of adulthood. Trailer reactions to this film elicited strong emotional reactions from people of all ages whose hearts were formed alongside Christopher Robin’s journeys in the Hundred Acre Woods. Maybe it’s his cuddly feel, his singular fixation on honey above all else, or humorous witticisms, but the character’s appeal has transcended the ebb and flow of pop-culture. Due to this, Disney has a property on its hands that holds appeal in almost every demographic, a rare find indeed, and with that in mind, this entire film could have been a misfire. However, I found this film to charm from beginning to end, and it possesses a melancholy beauty that is haunting but never off-putting, creating a spellbinding cinematic tale that is both familiar and new and above all comforting.
I think it’s important to state that growing up, Pooh wasn’t my thing. Of course, I knew who he was, and I watched the shows like most. However, in those days, I appreciated a bit more kinetic energy in my entertainment. As I’ve aged, I’ve kept my eye on the property, and my children have all watched his shows in varying levels of interest. Still, all of them have connected on some level with them all, as have I. While there are a number of books and papers written on how the characters connect to philosophy, religion, and psychology, the wonderful thing as an adult is seeing how those connections weren’t stretches or fabrications. Whether it be Pooh’s simplicity, Piglet’s anxious fright, Rabbit’s insistence on order, Tigger’s boundless energy, Owl’s confused wisdom, Eeyore’s depressed state, or the caring relationship of Kanga and Roo, there is much to see and connect with from them all. I, now, understand its timeless appeal, and the general calm of it all is a respite from the mostly frantic nature of kid’s entertainment. Drawing from these things was central to the project, I’m sure.
Here, we see the young boy leave his playmates behind with a farewell party, as he heads off to boarding school. Promises are made that he will never forget Pooh and friends, but life, love, tragedy, and war make their happy strolls and adventures in the woods a distant memory. Despite Christopher Robin moving on, Pooh continues to await his return, and at a time of desperate need for both, fate draws them all together again. With Christopher’s home and career on the line, can that silly old bear help his old friend find the spark his life has been missing and set things right?
Filling the role of Christopher Robin, we have a favorite actor of mine, Ewan McGregor. A very capable actor with a deep knowledge of working with heavy effects work, he fully inhabits a character that once held wonder but now shoulders burdens. He works at the behest of the heir apparent to a British conglomerate (Mark Gatiss) making luggage among many other companies; times are hard in post-war England, but Christopher’s times are made even more so when tasked with cutting costs to extreme amounts in a matter of days. Hayley Atwell effectively inhabits the role of his wife, emoting with limited expression, an after-effect of years of disappointments from him in their marriage and parenting. Bronte Carmichael plays their daughter, Madeline, struggling to connect with her workaholic father, but eager to please him and the sense of duty he is trying to instill in her. On the basis of the premise alone, it’s all a heavy affair, but the right amounts of levity are conveyed throughout. Pair that with the wonders of the Hundred Acre Wood, and you have a multi-toned film, that keeps it engaging but slightly inconsistent.
Everything involving Winnie the Pooh and his friends is absolute movie magic. The Disney signifier in the title of the film sets us to expect performances in line with all their Pooh productions prior, yet, the filmmakers set out from the first to draw from the original E.H. Shepard drawings in the original publications. What we get is the most tangible representation of the characters we’ve seen yet, and all at once, directly tied to all we know and love about it all. I can definitely say that this film is one of the very best uses of visual effects I’ve yet witnessed; nothing here is done to draw attention to itself, but instead, it draws you in to believing every single thing you are seeing. Rarely do we see such skill executed with humility to the purpose of audience immersion. I’d love to know what a small child feels watching these stuffed toys brought to stunningly realized life. A few years ago, John Lasseter was tasked with trying to bring Winnie the Pooh back to the forefront again with a self-titled feature film. While it looked like the classic Disney cartoons, it found itself in a weird place: unexcitingly familiar, but feeling too busy and loud as a Pooh story. None of that happens here; in fact, we get the exact opposite. The fantastic plush and fuzzy feel of them all is so inviting, and the characterization is spot on for each and every voice role.
Brad Garrett is now my favorite voice for Eeyore (because, of course, he was always meant to be). Peter Capaldi as Rabbit and Toby Jones as Owl sound just different enough from what we know to grab us (and again, casting perfection). Nick Mohammed, unfamiliar to me as an actor prior, is able to make the voice of Piglet more natural than it has ever been, and Sophie Okenedo portrays the perfect calm we expect from Kanga, even if she is sparingly present in the film. Then, there is Jim Cummings, a voice-acting legend, who I realized has rarely if ever had as prominent of a role in a theatrical film until now. He not only voices Pooh, but also Tigger, two roles he has expertly handled for years (originally, Chris O’Dowd was said to have been cast as Tigger, but test audiences apparently rejected his take on the voice). There is real feeling that comes through these performances, and I say bravo to any who had a say in casting each. Of course, with Cummings, they’d be crazy to look to anyone else, as long as he is available. It is his voice that gives the film such strength and resonance with audiences. With just a few words from him as Pooh, I could feel audiences month ago during the film’s trailers connecting with the film; imagine them in witnessing the comforts of the film’s entirety.
If I have any critiques of the film, that word would come up: comfort. Yet, it is also a primary strength here. The film gives us everything we know of the characters (with little quotes and references throughout). Hollywood’s peddling of nostalgia has become an indictment for many in recent years, citing a lack of originality. This film won’t change those people’s minds. Here, we get everything we could want, and that feels good to see happen so well. Yet, for some, that won’t be enough to like the film or respect what it does so well. Sure, we get a story that is fairly predictable, but I daresay we’ve seen family entertainment appropriate for all ages that is as beautifully realized as this. Blink and you’ll miss it shots of dying flowers and dripping honey, for instance, are inter-cut throughout that hold symbolic meaning for the tale as a whole; you’d expect such things from Terence Malick, but not a kid’s movie. I’ve read some call this dull, but that is what makes this film a triumph; I respect the director, Marc Forster, for making everything so beautifully realized. His filmography is ecclectic (to say the least), so I didn’t know how everything would coalesce. I am pleased to say this may be my favorite thing he’s done. The film’s early scenes that show the progression of life, as if they are chapters in a book, felt especially appropriate and brilliantly done. Children’s entertainment is often too busy in many cases, and this film slows things down in an artful way, in an effort for us to also slow down and find that which is most important in life.
From a content perspective, you have absolutely nothing to worry about in bringing your children. Clean, family-appropriate entertainment in theaters can be an anomaly at times, but this film fits the bill. There was no language, violence, or sexual content at all, thankfully. The film shows us the importance of remembrance and never losing sight of our past, Scriptural themes I elaborate on in the Geeks Under Grace Bible Study I authored (I will update this with a link when it publishes). It definitely put my mind and heart to pondering my roles as a husband, a father, and a worker, and the balance that is vital in all roles.
All-in-all, I found this to be a surprisingly emotional film that, while not surprising with its narrative, captured my attention with its own mesmerizing look and feel. I can’t wait to add this film to home collection, and with it, reinforce my family’s growing love of the denizens of the Hundred-Acre Woods. It’s a cinematic journey that is fun and touching, even as its tone shifts throughout. It isn’t perfect, especially as it comes near the end, but I’d say that this is a film that does everything it needed to do with a touch of beauty, allowing us to fall in love with characters all over again in a new way.