A year after Goodbye Christopher Robin used fact-based drama to trace the fortunes of the real boy behind the Winnie the Pooh stories, here’s the rather more fanciful Disney offering, in which the now grown-up master Christopher (Ewan McGregor) returns to Hundred Acre Wood for an effects-assisted adventure with his childhood pals. McGregor manfully puts on his best posh Home Counties accent as the husband and father mired in work commitments impinging on his family life, but the digitally animated reappearance of Pooh and pals could yet signal a welcome reconfiguration of his priorities.
It’s a familiar tale, seen before in Mary Poppins and indeed the dread Hook, whereby a cranky dad needs to forget his career and rediscover his inner big kid. However, Christopher Robin’s five credited screenwriters seem to be in a bit of a pickle about how to achieve this liberating resolution, delivering a decidedly scrappy affair, with much frantic chasing about, a central character who’s a rather tiresome fusspot, and very little genuine feeling.
Where’s the magic we were hoping for? Director Marc Forster also helmed the marvellous Finding Neverland, so hopes were high that he could bring some of the same child-like delight to these proceedings. Curiously, though, part of the disappointment might be related to the decision to render Pooh, Tigger, Piglet et al, as cuddly toys come back to computer-generated life. The Paddington movies, for instance, absolutely made us believe in a digital bear, but the furry animals on display here are surprisingly charmless – not least Pooh’s downright creepy button eyes and the faded tones which drain the colour from the usually irrepressible Tigger.
It’s difficult to credit that this lot are going to change anyone’s life, not least the much-hassled McGregor. Given that Disney’s familiar versions of AA Milne and EH Shepard’s characters are much loved to begin with, there might surely have been a case here for a blend of live-action and regular 2D animation – in the vintage style of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
As it is, McGregor struggles to relax into the role (fair enough, this Christopher Robin is written as a bit of a fuddy-duddy), so the attention tends to wander elsewhere. Mark Gatiss trowels it on rather too thickly as his unscrupulous boss, although Jim Cummings’ contribution as the voice of Pooh and ever-frolicsome Tigger, whom he’s incarnated on screen for the past 30 years, remains as comforting as ever. It’s not quite clear why Eeyore has an American accent – though voice artist Brad Garrett does a terrific job – but his comically excessive melancholy turns out to be an unlikely scene-stealer. “Oh, no,” he sighs as Tigger is poised to leap into his signature number, “he’s going to do the song again…”
It’s a rare moment of laugh-out-loud fun in a film that knows exactly where it wants to go, but plays out disappointingly forced and superficial in the execution. Younger Disney fans in particular will be puzzled why there’s so much of the boring old dad when it is titled Christopher Robin – and therein lies a warning.
Christopher Robin opens in cinemas on Friday 17 August.