It's been a banner summer for crying. Some of the tears came from movies you'd expect, like one in which an eighth-grade girl struggles with her self-esteem. Other times, they were sneak-attack snivels, like when a movie-musical sequel based on the songs of ABBA triggered four different tear-jerking moments, one of which had me stifling an audible shriek-sob.
Anyone who saw the trailer for Disney's new Christopher Robin film, which gives Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood the Paddington treatment, probably expected to have their heart strings plucked a bit. This movie gives them a full-blast bluegrass strum.
That's one willy, nilly, silly, old, emotionally devastating bear.
Maybe it’s because we’re all feeling a bit brittle lately. There are Heffalumps and Woozles at every terrifying turn in today’s world. We could use an old friend to help fight them off and feel safe again.
Christopher Robin is written by Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), and Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip), directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), and of course, inspired by the characters of A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard. It’s a veritable Avengers of emotional storytelling. Together, they prove that feelings are still movies’ most valuable special effect. (Though the special effects used to animate these characters is pretty darned impressive, too.)
When we meet up with our old friends, the animals are gathered for a farewell party for young Christopher Robin, who will soon be going off to boarding school. A clever narrative device then makes the passage of time go quickly, aging Christopher through boarding school, the First World War, and to his current state as a middle-aged family man (played by Ewan McGregor) with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter he ignores at the expense of his demanding job at a luggage company.
If Milne’s original stories basked in the purity of youth, then Christopher Robin’s jumping-off point is the brutal realities of adulthood that muck it all up. Here is a Christopher Robin who has endured the literal hell of battle, the economic anxieties of a post-war economy, and the loneliness and stress of parenthood and providing. This is a Disney movie, and in that grand tradition he also suffers the traumatizing death of a parent. Oh, bother.
He’s become so bogged down by grown-up priorities and anxieties, he’s at risk of losing his family. It’s then, when he needs a reminder of who he is at heart, before adult life hardened him and blinded him to what really matters, that Pooh shows up.
Only those with the greatest of emotional fortitude will be able to withstand the sight of Pooh, Tigger, and their friends with gray hair because they, too, have grown old. But while these animals have gone long in the tooth, their devotion to each other and to Christopher Robin remains stuck in time. That’s largely the point: our innocence and innate, childlike goodness never disappears. We just let so much get in the way that we forget how to access it.
To that end, Pooh is like a dadaist philosopher, espousing seemingly nonsensical maxims like “doing nothing often leads to the very best something” and “I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been” with an endearing matter-of-factness. His lack of cynicism and inability to understand sarcasm or irony spin each conversation into a vaudeville comedy routine, in a tour de force of voice acting from the legendary Jim Cummings, who pulls double duty putting the whimsical spring in Tigger’s dialogue, too.
The film takes special care to ensure that these characters ring true not just to the source material, but to our own memories of and fondness for them, too. It’s a delicate legacy to protect and one very easy to shatter, but this film cradles it with perfect gingerness.
Once the jarring verisimilitude of the stuffed animals’ live-action renderings normalizes itself, these characters look, talk, and feel like the ones you know and love, brought to life in a wonderful new story that justifies dusting off our cherished memories of them. The film never could have worked if it wasn’t made with as much respect and, more, love. Love seems to explode from every frame of Christopher Robin.
The palette Forster uses to depict London and the Hundred Acre Wood swaths the film in a sepia-like Instagram filter, so that its most colorful elements, like a scene-stealing red balloon, carry a certain poignancy. As Huffington Post writer Matt Jacobs pointed out on Twitter, there are times when, visually, it resembles a Terrence Malick film, underscoring that this is no cheap play for summer movie bucks.
There’s an undercurrent of melancholy to the film, perhaps explaining why it leaves you in a constant state of misty-eyedness. When young Christopher Robin says goodbye to Pooh as he leaves for boarding school, he promises the bear that he won’t forget about him, “even when I’m 100.” We all know, of course, that he will, and soon. That’s the sadness of leaving one’s childhood behind. We don’t know it’s happening at the time, so we can’t even know to miss it, or treasure it. How heartbreaking.
I even had my own epiphany of a forgotten childhood memory during a scene when McGregor’s grown Christopher Robin plays a round of Pooh Sticks on a bridge, remembering how much fun the simple game was. Growing up, my siblings and I played the game all the time, and our parents would cheerily judge. What a lovely memory that I nearly lost. Like Christopher Robin, I’m grateful to Winnie the Pooh for helping me rescue it.
There’s this schoolyard nonsense that I imagine at one point everyone encountered, when someone obnoxiously pointed out that all the characters in the Winnie the Pooh tales could actually be avatars for mental disorders. Pooh is impulsive-obsessive, Piglet has anxiety disorder, Tigger has ADHD, Eeyore has depression, Rabbit is OCD, Owl is dyslexic, Kanga has social anxiety disorder, and Roo is on the autism spectrum. Christopher Robin, meanwhile, is a schizophrenic, and these characters are simply manifestations of his moods.
Har-har-har, mind blown, whatever. But riding the emotional high of watching Christopher Robin, we can even view that needlessly dark, childhood-ruining theory through a tender lens. Whether or not they are diagnosable, these are friends who need each other in order to feel safe in this world, who in turn show up for each other, calm each other, and accept each other, so that they can get through it all together.
More, the film doesn’t shame the need for that help. It presents it matter-of-factly as a part of the human (or stuffed animal) experience. What a powerful message for a child. As grown-up Christopher Robin learns, it’s a powerful message for an adult, too.
We don't know how intentional it is, but the film is cannily timed. The idea that we've become jaded beyond recognition is rather evergreen. So is the notion that completely exorcising our childhood innocence poisons not only our happiness, but suffocates our productivity and value to the world as well. That's why “stodgy man reconnects with his past” is its own veritable genre, particularly in family films. (These films tend to have more to teach adults than the children that dragged them there.)
But there's something about today's world and culture wars that have us all parched for joy. The instinct to fight and resist is a good one, but with that comes the necessity for self-care: hunkering down in a bunker of nostalgia, seeking out a warm hug. Christopher Robin does one better. It gives you some old friends to cuddle with, too.