Walt Disney will open Christopher Robin starting right this second (actually, an hour ago on the West Coast and four hours ago on the East Coast… Watchmen-style) via the usual Thursday previews before opening in 3,602 theaters tomorrow. The general projections are in the realm of $27-$33 million, give or take how audiences react to negative reviews that I’m presuming are about to spill in. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’ve never seen a Disney release place their embargo so late. Heck, on the East Coast, the first 6:00pm showings will have let out before the first deluge of reviews drop in.
Anyway, as you’ll learn in a moment, the Marc Forster-directed film isn’t very good, and it’s certainly unlikely to become some new-wave summer-ending smash. Still, with a budget presumably closer to Pete’s Dragon than Beauty and the Beast, anything close to a $30 million launch will be a relative win. I’m more interested in how this kid-targeted fantasy effects both the other Disney films (Incredibles 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp) and family flicks (Teen Titans GO to the Movies, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Hotel Transylvania 3) still in play.
The film, a riff on Hook filtered through A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh characters, launches in just a few international markets this weekend, including Russia, Mexico, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It will have to face the above flicks as well as a likely robust second weekend of Mission: Impossible – Fallout and the opening bouts of The Spy Who Dumped Me, The Darkest Minds and Death of the Nation. Considering that Disney’s next three “live-action adaptations of a big Disney IP” are Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King, the only thing “at stake” is whether Disney can have all their 2018 releases over the $100m mark.
I’m not a huge fan of Hook, but Steven Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy was both an overstuffed blockbuster spectacular and a deeply personal story using the “Peter Pan grows up” story as a vessel to both explore how kids often grow up into the kind of adults whom their childhood selves wouldn’t recognize and how a filmmaker like Spielberg could do the work he does while still being a proactive and participatory parent. It may have been a preemptive example of an overdone Hollywood tentpole, but it still plays as a deeply personal look at work/family balance and middle-aged depression.
Christopher Robin is a soulless, automated variation on Steven Spielberg’s Hook, but with the Winnie the Pooh characters taking the place of the Peter Pan mythology. Despite a screenplay courtesy of Alex Ross (Listen Up, Phillip) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), it offers little specific insight beyond a standard “dads shouldn’t work so much” moral which is of little value to this generation’s overworked/underpaid professionals. More importantly, the film stops dead in its tracks during its second act and barely gets back to business for the climax, offering an allegedly whimsical adventure that is filled with grim palettes and morose characters.
Following an awkwardly staged (but impressively mournful) flashback showing a young Christopher Robin saying farewell to his animal friends, Ewan McGregor plays a now-grown-up Christopher Robin, having been molded into a very serious adult both by World War I and by the various responsibilities of fatherhood. He never laughs, always works late and now must skip out on a planned family holiday to stay in and try to balance the books to save his company’s workforce. He won’t be alone.
As he sits on a park bench wondering what to do, he gets a surprise of a lifetime, as none other than Winnie the Pooh, one of his childhood stuffed animals, shows up to say hello. First, the film’s technical credits are impeccable. The effects work used to bring these stuffed animals to walking and talking life is indeed impressive. Those who simply want to see the world of Winnie the Pooh made into proverbial flesh and blood will get their money’s worth. But the story inside this fantasy is barely worth telling, and the animals of Hundred Acre Wood provide more of a hindrance than a help.
For much of the running time, you’ll wish that Pooh and his friends would leave Christopher Robin the hell alone. For the entire second act and much of the third act, they do little more than cause confusion and delay. The film grinds to a standstill once we get what we presumably came to see. While that Spielberg flick threw everything but the kitchen sink into its “Robin gets to Neverland and bonds with the Lost Boys” middle act, Christopher Robin spends 1/3 of its running time essentially avoiding action and retreating from its story, with McGregor being flummoxed, confused and annoyed by his former childhood animal pal.
Pooh is presented as a trouble-making young child, prone to accident and in constant need of entertainment and supervision. That would be fine, except we spend the film wishing Pooh (and eventually the rest of the gang) would leave Christopher in peace so he could theoretically solve his work problem and meet up with his actual child. While we’re supposed to presume that adult Christopher Robin’s encounters with his animal friends are supposed to reawaken the child within himself and reevaluate his priorities, the narrative offers little in the way of A-to-B storytelling.
If anything, Tigger and Eeyore and the others’ interventions only cause more frustration (and eventually very real peril) for our hero, who by the way is not a ruthless businessman but an overworked father who would damn well rather be with his wife and kid in the first place. The interactions between human and animal become less heartwarming and jovial and more anxiety-causing. As a result, if you’re invested in Robins’ emotional wellbeing, you’ll find yourself rooting against the very thing you came to see.
Despite strong human performances (even from Hayley Atwell, who is given little to do as McGregor’s suffering wife) and some truly inspired special effects that create utterly believable walking-and-talking stuffed animals, Christopher Robin is a painfully thin fantasy. It is afraid to confront the bleakness of its post-World War I premise but also just grim enough to notice that it’s not much fun. Yes, dads should balance work and family, which is a fine message if you’re fortunate enough to be able to have a choice in the matter.
I like everyone involved in this picture (I’m the guy who defends Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace) and “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” is my favorite Disneyland ride, so it gives me no pleasure to report that Christopher Robin offers little pleasure. Absent even the emotional maturity in its family melodrama of something like Nine Lives, the film has little to offer beyond the mere sight of a live-action Winnie the Pooh. It is arguably trying to use fanciful (but comparatively low-key) children’s’ icons to tell a straightforward adult drama.
You can argue that using Winnie the Pooh is the only way such a film might get made outside of the Oscar season in 2018, but it is the execution that dooms it. The narrative miscalculates by making Robin a figure of pity, with such self-awareness of his plight that you wish Pooh and his friends would leave him be. Good intentions, solid performances, good effects work and some potently naturalistic cinematography notwithstanding, Christopher Robin will have you feeling like a Heffalump and/or Woozle.