Sunday, August 5, 2018

Chapter VIII: In which Christopher Robin liberates a concentration camp


Say, doesn't "a grown man reunites with his imaginary friends" sound at least as much like a horror movie as it does a cute comedy?  Why, yes.  Yes, it does.

Directed by Marc Forster
Written by Alex Ross Perry and Allison Schroeder
With Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin), Jim Cummings (Pooh and Tigger), Nick Mohammed (Piglet), Brad Garrett (Eeyore), Peter Capaldi (Rabbit), Sophie Okenedo (Kanga), Sara Sheen (Roo), Toby Jones (Owl), Haley Atwell (Evelyn Robin), and Bronte Carmichael (Madeline Robin)

Spoiler alert: moderate

It's probably not a coincidence that Christopher Robin's made its appearance now, in the August of 2018.  This date suggests that its corporate genesis probably rests somewhere back in 2013 or 2014—that is, shortly after A.A. Milne's family line extinguished itself with the early, cerebral palsy-related death of his granddaughter Clare Milne, someone who might well have made a stink about how his son and Clare's father, Christopher Robin Milne, actually felt about Winnie-the-Pooh, and how much Christopher despised the empire built atop his father's creation (a creation, itself, which Christopher always felt his father had built atop him, burying Christopher in the process).  Hence one can rightfully suspect that Disney waited till there was nobody left with an interest in Winnie-the-Pooh who would see any percentage in criticizing their newest attempt to live-actionize every last one of their old classic cartoons.  It's a habit which has always implied a certain inclination toward graverobbery, though they've been getting brazen about it lately.

Either way, that brings us to the live action film that takes as its subject Christopher Milne's alter ego, now grown to adulthood, and therefore putting the man right back where he started, associating with imaginary friends he didn't actually have in a 100 Acre Wood he may or may not have actually enjoyed playing in.  Unavoidably, it fictionalizes poor Christopher Milne even further, imputing to his counterpart the exact opposite feelings towards Pooh that Christopher actually had, whilst sanding off the complexities of his existence in favor of one more boilerplate salaryman fable amidst literally thousands of the things, and giving him a daughter who sure doesn't seem to be expressing any particular disability, potentially-lethal or otherwise.  I'm sure Christopher and Clare would've really dug that last part.

Now, it's at least somewhat unfair to commingle Christopher Milne with the character Christopher Robin; believe it or not, I realize this isn't a biopic.  And Christopher Robin has achieved a life and legend outside his inspiration (an inspiration who, after all, is dead, and therefore incapable of having further personal feelings on the matter).  It is also futile, of course, to expect Disney to behave with anything but self-serving amorality toward its own properties, and their intermittent cinematic exploitation of Pooh has been welcome, at least in its broader strokes (notably 2011's flawed-but-delightful, if not imaginatively-titled, Winnie the Pooh).  And yeah: it is, in some respects, a little difficult to sympathize with the priorities of a crybaby who, however honorably, found his unearned access to wealth and opportunity a burden.  (It's probably worth disclosing, too, that I have no affection for A.A. Milne's work, as such: like most everybody, if I ever read Milne, those memories have been wholly overwritten by Disney's first adaptation, the compilation of shorts comprising the studio's finest work of the 60s and 70s, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, without which Pooh probably doesn't even continue to exist as a global phenomenon, so global it was capable of getting Christopher Robin banned in China, which almost makes me want to support the film out of patriotism.  Regardless, it's not unlike the way that I doubt anybody outside Britain would still care about Peter Pan, absent Disney's 1953 intervention.)  Clearly, I digress, and I haven't even started yet: all of this is simply to say that if Christopher Robin engaged in the slightest with the actual life of Christopher Robin Milne and the legacy of Winnie-the-Pooh, even unsuccessfully, it would've been more interestingAnd God knows, this rather dumb and surprisingly ugly movie needed to be more interesting, if it wanted to be anything at all.

I would have also accepted Winnie the Pooh and Shutter Island Too.

What Christopher Robin wants to do instead is position itself as a distant sequel to The Many Adventures, beginning (sort of) where the package film ended, with Christopher and Pooh doing their very deliberate nothing together and Christopher telling Pooh that soon he must say goodbye, though he will still visit from time to time, and that he shall still remember him, even if he lives to be 100 years old.

This is a lie, of course, and one of the points of Many Adventures is that any adult watching it is supposed to recognize this as a lie; but Christopher Robin is determined to miss most of the points of the Pooh cartoons, notably in that Christopher Robin is a much more active character here than he was in stories that were usually much less about Christopher Robin than they were about magnified childhood foibles personified in the form of stuffed animals.  (And sometimes "real" talking animals, though it wasn't till now that I noticed on any conscious level that Owl and Rabbit are real animals; it's a distinction that Christopher Robin's design and CG animation plays up in many unpleasant ways, but we'll get to that later.)

So: Christopher grows up, goes to boarding school, sees his father die, becomes Ewan McGregor via another serving of Disney's always-startlingly-good de-aging algorithms, meets his wife Evelyn on a bus (as opposed to marrying his cousin against his mother's wishes—told you Christopher Milne was more interesting), knocks Evelyn up, goes to war, and finally returns to England to be a more-or-less absentee father as he pursues a middle-management career at a failing luggage company whilst Evelyn and his daughter, Madeline, grow increasingly resentful of their sharply-circumscribed lives, and Madeline prepares to go off to boarding school herself in order to "prepare for her career," because this movie is direly ahistoric.  Anyway, much of this has already been related via the film's first and best trick, a montage of added chapters to a Milne-like book, that often dissolves out of and into illustrations that resemble E.H. Shepard's pen-and-ink drawings, cross-cut with Pooh waiting patiently, but with burgeoning despondence, for his friend to return.  That makes it sometime around 1949 that Christopher Robin's familial and professional troubles at last come to a head (in part because Evelyn is portrayed mostly as a stereotyped nag who refuses to understand the concept of "a job"), and when Christopher begs off from participating in a planned family trip to their countryside cottage, he's left alone in London.  But Pooh, finding his own animal family to have vanished, crosses from the child-scaled fantasyland of the 100 Acre Wood into Christopher's real world seeking aid, causing the middle-aged man no small amount of surprise and consternation.

In other words, it's Hook, and it shares with Hook its fundamental problem, which is that it's a kid's movie for adults that has no idea how to go about doing that, artistically or commercially, except to be a kid's movie in every way that matters, only with themes that only adults could recognize or care about, while being rather terrified of doing anything adult with them.  In Hook's case, this meant a weird skittishness about sex and violence; in Christopher Robin, it means that Christopher Robin gets cartoon business problems and cartoon interpersonal problems that are amenable to cartoon solutions, and in the process Christopher learns to share his imagination with his daughter, who is implicitly presented to not possess any of her own.

The script is... fine, for these purposes, though it's overenunciative even for a kid's movie, and leans to an annoying degree upon theme words stolen from The Many Adventures and repeated constantly, and it overstays its welcome despite only clocking in at 104 minutes, closing out with an obligatory manic chase through London, which would have admirably low stakes for any other movie, and which has incongruously large ones for a Winnie the Pooh movie.  (One of the big problems with Christopher Robin is the same problem that Winnie the Pooh '11 only overcame by virtue of never pretending to have any particular point: for unlike Hook, which takes on Peter Pan and therefore takes on an automatic narrative structure, the Pooh stories are expressions of childhood play and have correspondingly low attention-spans, and are certainly not designed to be feature length.)  And even at the level it wants to be met at, it's really childish and sloppy: the first reunion of Christopher and Pooh mentions the possibility of madness in dialogue, then decides the movie is just going to ignore that going forward, as Christopher's friends demonstrate their existence in various ways; yet honestly, I'm not terrifically keen on the idea of Pooh and pals being physically real.

But the screenplay itself, at any rate, is pretty much okay, in that it doesn't make too much of a mockery of anything, and it somewhat grasps both Poohvian wordplay/aphasia and the characters' divergent voices, at least when it's trying to do so, despite an array of stunt-cast actors who could've easily screwed everything up.  But then, it only tries to grasp their voices when it comes to Pooh and Tigger and Eeyore (Brad Garret, i.e. Ray Romano's TV brother, is admittedly inspired stunt-casting), and perhaps to some vanishingly small degree with Piglet.  Meanwhile, they practically ignore everybody else.  I guess that's not exactly untraditional, but it is disappointing, even if it has the benefit of avoiding Disney's recent penchant for radically misinterpreting Rabbit.  And Rabbit's near-absence is noticeable anyway, given that the grown-up Christopher would presumably find much more in common with Rabbit's crotchety, sensible ways than he would with Pooh and Pooh's self-centered cupidity; indeed, Rabbit, could Rabbit read a spreadsheet, would probably be most helpful in assisting Christopher in choosing which of his redundant employees to fire.

Rabbit would likely suggest taking them out to the furthest part of the woods and leaving them there to die.  He's done it before, and these characters, being based on the psychology of children, are all actually incredibly mean.

And that is where the screenplay kind of does genuinely feel unfaithful (and also badly dubious), since it has every intention of upholding Pooh and Tigger, especially, as kinds of aspirational figures, of the sort that third-party authors with books to sell have been trying to make out of them for several decades; whereas Many Adventures and even the more recent cartoons are still reasonably well aware that they represent personality elements that are much, much more charming in a child than they would be in any adult.  (Watch them as an adult, and try not classifying Pooh as a moderate sociopath and Tigger as a violent narcissist, and both with IQs in the low, low 70s.)  Needless to say, as the toys sabotage their friend even when they're trying to help, it doesn't entirely work, except maybe on the basis of a particularly powerful nostalgia.  But then, when Christopher Robin manages to tap that nostalgia, it can't help but work; and there's an identifiable stretch in the middle where it's sometimes a successful film, if not a good one, borne aloft by Jim Cummings' life's work of perfectly imitating Sterling Holloway's seemingly-inimitable voice as the willy-nilly-silly old bear we love.

"Success" assumes, however, that Christopher Robin can consistently tap that nostalgia, and here's where we point out that Hook had the good fortune of being directed by Steven Spielberg, and, even when spiraling out of control, no Spielberg picture is ever likely to be poorly-made.  Christopher Robin, of course, was directed by Marc Forster, a journeyman evidently chosen for this project on the basis of the theoretically-thematically-similar Finding Neverland and the metacinematic Stranger Than Fiction, and proving himself to be a hilariously bad choice, especially as neither skillset ever actually comes into play (bizarrely, too: Pooh's adventures are meta as hell!).

And so Christopher Robin is formally destitute, and more to the point, hideous, beset with Matthias Koenigswieser's desolate gunmetal-gray cinematography, which somehow becomes even gloomier after the film makes its transition from London to Christopher's dreamscape, so that the 100 Acre Wood looks rather more like the abode of a band of socioeconomically-disadvantaged orcs than the home of Winnie the Pooh.  (Not for nothing has Disney's marketing department made a quixotic effort to color-correct Christopher Robin back to some semblance of "normal" in their most recent trailers for it.)  And all along, the film is busy, distractingly, distressingly busy—Christopher's moment of epiphany, delivered to Madeline, is more jarringly cut than Sarah Connor's farewell to the first Terminator—and the film overall, awkwardly constructed by Forster and his usual editor Matt Chesse out of drunkenly-swooping camera movements and disconnected, assaultive closeups of faces and stupidly-angled shot-reverse-shot set-ups and weird cod-Malicky insert shots of Pooh's felt hand caressing lavender, has a lot more more in common with the opening chase scene from Forster's Quantum of Solace that made people throw up than it does anything from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  I even like Quantum of Solace, but probably don't need to further explain why this is bad.

Between the editing and cinematography, it would be enough, but Christopher Robin has one more affront to go, and even when the editing and cinematography aren't making themselves queasily felt, there you are, still staring at the unacceptable: the hyperreal CG renderings of Pooh and his friends, all of whom were designed for the abstracted medium of xerographed pencils, and all whom are varying degrees of terrifying in 3-D (especially inside this editing and cinematography), and none moreso than Pooh himself, who looks as if Christopher Robin really might have begun its life as a Disney-branded psychothriller more akin to A Game of You than to Hook, where the main narrative tension presumably arose from whether Christopher Robin was having a mental collapse, or whether Christopher Robin actually was being stalked by his childhood toys.  (So if nothing else good came out of Christopher Robin, it still inspired a great trailer parody embracing this essential quality of the film.)

I'd like to say that you get over it, and the voice cast and gently dumb script does help—close your eyes, and Christopher Robin is pleasant enough, at least when it isn't borderline-arbitrarily dropping its annoying, twinkly-piano versions of the classic musical cues into its score—but every time you think you've become accustomed to Pooh's overrendered grayed felt and Forster's aggressive closeups of Pooh's black shark's eyes, you're hit with something new.  Something in the rickety animation of Pooh's ancient legs, perhaps, or something in the way he smears photoreal honey all over his photoreal "fur," or something in the way he leers emptily at the camera—and it reminds you that you're watching dolls who live forever, never forget you, and become filthy and encrusted with all the soil of their surroundings.  Not a bad metaphor for many of Disney's live action remakes, albeit presumably an accidental one.  But even if Christopher Robin were any good, which it isn't, it would still be disgusting, and the brief moments of barely-there magic we get aren't nearly enough to redeem that.

Score:  4/10


  1. For the life of me, I can't figure out what this is Chapter VIII of? What kind of marathon are we running here, chum?

    Also, this movie sounds even more depressing than Peter Rabbit, which I DID watch in theaters. What is UP with these CGI kids movies these days?

    1. Oh, the VIII is mostly arbitrary, though it's *roughly* the point in the opening "Christopher Robin grows up" montage where he would, indeed, be in a position to find some mass graves.

      I really don't know who signs off on stuff at Disney sometimes, but especially the cinematography (which I've come to believe is the biggest single factor in CR's spine-tingliness). Between this and Solo, you'd be forgiven for thinking they didn't give a shit about what their movies looked like (or what those looks signified) at all. Humbug.