Maybe my soul is as black as tar, but Disney’s Winnie the Pooh yarn, “Christopher Robin,” is downright un-BEAR-able. I nearly drowned in the free-flowing treacle. It’s the latest — and least — live-action version of a Disney animated classic built to fill the House of Mouse with billions. Where “Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast” were high-class, this ball of smarm, based on beloved characters created by British author A.A. Milne, is more on a level with the clunky Dr. Seuss movies.
Ewan McGregor plays Pooh’s human pal, Christopher Robin, now grown and overwhelmed by the stresses of adulthood. Gone is his childhood innocence of playing pretend and searching for woozles with the gang in Hundred Acre Wood. Like the ghost of Christmas Past, Pooh (voice of Jim Cummings) re-enters Christopher’s life to help him find his way. Pooh is aided in his quest by the old gang: Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Tigger (Cummings, again) and Owl (Toby Jones.) Each character is a one-trick pony, so to speak. Owl is always preening, Piglet is always fearful, Tigger is always hyper and Eeyore is always glum. As a whole, they’re mildly amusing.
Stop and smell the roses. Enjoy life. Be present. Smile. Laugh. Those are the ultimate takeaways offered by director Marc Forster (the vastly superior “Finding Neverland”), working from a script by Alex Ross Perry, Allison Schroeder and Tom McCarthy. It’s an earnest message for these swirling times, and there is no better actor than McGregor to play the part with a mix of gusto and adult weariness (See “Big Fish”; in fact, see that instead of this). He’s a grown man with a child-like twinkle in his eyes and bit of a devilish grin. Good casting, except the filmmakers squander McGregor’s abilities treading a formulaic path to happily ever after.
The film opens in Hundred Acre Wood. The gang’s all there for a farewell party honoring the young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) as he heads off to boarding school. The ensuing shenanigans drew plenty of chuckles from the youngsters in the audience I saw the film with. Mixing pen-and-ink drawings straight out of the source material with live action, the movie then offers a quick montage (think “Up”) of Christopher’s schooling, marriage, war, etc. Cut to present and Christopher faces a do-or-die situation at his job as an efficiency manager of a luggage company. He’s forced to work through the weekend and skip the family holiday in the countryside. You haven’t smiled in years, points out his wife (a charming Hayley Atwell). Later, he meets cute with Pooh on a London park bench, as if the universe has divinely sent the bear to fix Christopher’s life. In a movie this predictable, you know redemption is just around the corner. It’s only a matter of time before the action moves to the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher reunites with his childhood pals and starts to rediscover fun and prioritize family over career.
Pooh aficionados will find joy in the simple wisdom of such Pooh-isms as: “Doing nothing often leads to the very best something,” and “Sometimes when I’m going somewhere and I wait, a somewhere comes to me.” The stuffed animals also sport an old-school look based on the original E.H. Shepard sketches. They appear a bit worn from years of being well-cuddled and loved. It’s all so vanilla sweet.
Ditto for the supporting cast. Bronte Carmichael plays Christopher’s adventurous daughter, Madeline, a girl who’ll do anything to please her father. Mark Gatiss is Christopher’s bad-guy boss, Giles Winslow. It’s a decidedly lighter tone than last fall’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which explored the boy’s troubled relationship with his parents. This “Christopher Robin” is having none of that nonsense about how a cash-cow bear turned out to be a curse forever scarring the Milne family.
This “Christopher Robin” is drenched in sticky sweet honey, and, yes, there are worse things to be, especially in a family flick. Except every moment in the film feels like you’ve seen it before. And you have; in movies like “Hook” and “Finding Neverland,” and practically every other Disney film ever made. But “Christopher Robin,” despite being pretty harmless entertainment with a nice message about holding onto your inner child, didn’t hit me in the gut with the poignancy of lost innocence or nostalgia for a simpler time.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss. With the voices of Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo.
(PG for some action)