Bruce Steele: The posters and promos for the new Disney film Christopher Robin have reliably softened the hearts of all lovers of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. Did the movie win you over as well?
Edwin Arnaudin: Whenever the silly old bear is onscreen: Yes. The rest of the time it feels like a simple morality tale in need of a few script revisions. Does that make me a cold-hearted workaholic like Ewan McGregor’s adult Christopher?
Bruce: I think “work” is what there wasn’t enough of when developing this story. It’s a moral lesson — “stay playful and put family first” — in search of a story. I agree that the “stuffies,” as they were called on set, are almost always charming and fun. But Christopher Robin’s work crisis — he has a weekend to cut costs at the post-WWII luggage company where he works — is a weak structure on which to build a movie. When did you know we were in trouble?
Edwin: I sensed a disturbance in the Milne-averse during the opening credits montage. The rapid-fire sequence vaults Christopher from boarding school preteen (played by the delightful Orton O’Brien) to zombie husband of Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and father of Madeline (Bronte Carmichael, Darkest Hour) with minimal character development. The talented screenwriting team of Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures) then carry on that spotty approach for much of the film. What were your initial red flags?
Bruce: Even earlier. The pre-credit sequence, when little Christopher says goodbye to his friends before heading to boarding school, seemed draggy and forced instead of being a thrilling reunion with these beloved characters. When Pooh turns up in a park outside grown-up Christopher’s home some 20 minutes later, I got hopeful again, because Pooh is entirely Pooh-like, and remains so until the end. Perhaps the writers were so happy they nailed Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore they neglected the humans?
Edwin: I was so mesmerized by the photo-realism of the stuffies — Pooh especially — that the likely narrative shortcomings didn’t affect me. But I think you’re right about the human blindspots in the "writer’s room.” (I’d be surprised to learn that the seemingly disparate trio met in person more than once or twice.) It feels like the filmmakers were so thrilled with the effects work that, once they read and possibly heard some classic Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, who also nicely does Tigger) and Eeyore (Brad Garrett) dialogue, the rest of the project became less important. These really are some of the more thinly-sketched homo sapiens in recent memory.
Bruce: The stuffies are great, and they make the movie worth seeing, both for the realistic tech and their inimitable personalities. But I think the filmmakers missed a crucial opportunity by not establishing some rules for their magical existence. Even the Toy Story toys follow some set limitations, which serve to magnify the wonder by restricting and focusing it. The stuffies live in a hidden realm on the far side of a tunnel through an enchanted tree (which can relocate), but they’re equally alive in the human world. That’s all we know. I’m usually fine with unexplained magic, but I usually understand its principles to some degree. Christopher Robin could have deepened and enriched the Pooh world with a touch of Harry Potter logic, don’t you think?
Edwin: Absolutely. I kept wondering if I wasn’t cutting the film enough slack for being a work of imagination, but the inconsistencies you describe make for willy-nilly action that’s frequently distracting. The magic tree is…problematic and the stuffies' apparent visibility by everyone in London is likewise spotty in its consequences. And speaking of accuracy within this hybrid world, were you similarly thrown by our hero being called Mr. Robin as opposed to Mr. Milne?
Bruce: Interesting point. It didn’t occur to me, but I’m guessing it was a decision to separate this fictional character from the real boy portrayed in last year’s Goodbye Christopher Robin. I liked McGregor in the role largely because I like McGregor in general, not because he finds anything special in the part. He’s just sort of generic put-upon Ewan. And Atwell, as Mrs. Robin, barely makes an impression at all. Fortunately, the movie really perks up once Madeline takes the reins, more than halfway through, and young Miss Carmichael has a lot of fun with the girl’s rebellion. Did she make you smile?
Edwin: Generally yes, once I got over the whole, “Oh, I guess she can see them, too,” hurdle. I want to like McGregor more here since he’s one of my favorite actors, but once he’s back in the Hundred Acre Wood and jumping around warding off Heffalumps like he’s a born-again nine-year-old, I frequently felt embarrassed for him. (A lot of that interpretation may have to do with director Marc Forster’s clumsy staging of that scene.) Mrs. Robin’s underwritten part also had me feeling blue for Atwell, but there’s no such shame in Carmichael’s legitimate youthful glee, nor in Christopher’s smarmy, man-child boss Giles Winslow. Played by Mark Gatiss from the BBC’s Sherlock, he might be having the most fun of all.
Bruce: He might have been having fun, but I wasn’t having fun watching him. I found him among the most uncreative and unfunny live-action comic villains in Disneydom. The filmmakers seem to be trying to emulate the elder and younger Mr. Dawes bank story line from Mary Poppins, but the whole luggage company thread is flat and unconvincing — except that it provides a trunk for Tigger to turn into something of a racecar, which was a hoot.
Edwin: I guess I was looking for any trace of personality among the adults, and Giles’ — which I agree is reductive — was the lone one to stand out. But yes, it’s as if the writers started with the trunk-as-landbound-jetski idea and worked their way back to Christopher being employed by a maker of luxury suitcases. It’s a largely pointless choice and the whole story plays out so conveniently and with such lazy twists that, with the exception of some fun train-set scenes, I wish most if not all of it had taken place on Pooh’s home turf.
Bruce: Funny, I would have voted for the whole movie in London, sort of like Fantastic Beasts. But I think our wishing just suggests that the movie’s bifurcation between the two locations doesn’t really work. Still, it’s hard to be too mean to a movie with such fully realized versions of Pooh and company, whom I’m tempted to revisit despite the film’s flaws. For one thing, I missed the end-credits tag scene, which I’m told was well-worth sticking around for. With that in mind, I’m giving the movie a B-minus.
Edwin: Getting Pooh and friends right counts for a lot, but the storytelling is so elementary, transparent and sappy that it cheapens the nostalgic elements that do work so well. I can't go higher than a C-plus and, besides the accidentally skipped final sequence, don't much want to see it again, but would give a stuffies supercut a look.
Grade: B-minus. Rated PG. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Walt Disney Studios)