You all thought I was into Paddington 2 for the cute bear. “Watch this Christopher Robin trailer,” you said. “Are you excited for the next Paddington?” you chattered all year, never seeing what was right in front of you from the very first trailer — that Disney’s latest live-action reimagining is a drab, lifeless movie with barely a reason to exist. Let’s get this out of the way: It’s no Paddington 2, and if you think so, you don’t really understand what makes Paddington 2 an above-average movie to begin with.
Winnie the Pooh, the imaginary friend of the innocent Christopher Robin known for his sweet intentions and zen-like incompetence, is a pretty-looking CGI character stuck in a boring and inconsistent movie about a man’s mid-life crisis.
Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is an adult now, working for a luggage company in early-1950s London. A prologue establishes he once was the Christopher Robin we know and love from the classic stories. He since got shipped off to boarding school, lost his father and fought in World War II for several years. The imagination that allowed him to concoct all of his adventures in the Hundred-Acre Wood has been ruined by very real horrors and responsibilities.
Post-war Robin works around the clock to provide for his beautiful wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell, and, yeah, being beautiful is her only defining characteristic) and daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Work defines him. His wife and daughter expect him to join them for a weekend in the country; his nasty boss, Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss,) asks him to work instead, and he obliges.
But then Pooh (Jim Cummings) shows up to ask for his help finding the rest of their old Hundred-Acre Wood friends and suddenly Robin comes face to face with who he’s become.
The beats are all so familiar that writers Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder barely bother to imbue them with life. Pooh is the most compelling character in the movie (his simple views on life are rehashed from the classic stories but nonetheless heartwarming), and the only real emotional relationship in the movie is Robin’s relationship with Pooh — because it is the only unique element of this story. Their conflict more or less resolves before the third act, which means a good third of the movie feels essentially tacked on. Robin is a boring character, his world is boring and the lesson he learns is shallow and stupid. Putting him at the center of this story is a perplexing unforced error.
All of the advertising promises your favorite friends, including Tigger (also Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi) and Kanga (Sophie Okonedo). They appear prominently in the second act and are a lot of fun to spend time with, but again, the movie is much more interested in Robin. Several characters are basically cameos.
Director Marc Forster’s signature style is filming everything he can in absolute close-up and cutting from frame to frame with dizzying speed. He doesn’t let up. Conversations are visually incoherent. Aesthetic flourishes feel at odds with the attempted tone of the script. Did I need to see Pooh walking through a field, his tiny fingerless hand running across the grass like something out of a Michael Bay trailer. Others have compared the flourishes to Terrance Malick. For what he’s worth, Malick’s visual style is used to convey his story. Bay uses slow-frames to conceal a lack of story and meaning. Here it expresses nothing. Ergo, Bay.
The gray, dark color palette at play here are just as perplexing, the latest in Disney’s line of dull live-action offerings. Pooh himself is a stunning CGI design full of emotion and soul. The world around him is not. Christopher Robin chases a “realistic” aesthetic, desperate to prove it can mix its animal characters in with the “real world.” Fuck the real world. People love Pooh for his simplicity and emotional authenticity. Nothing about this movie feels authentic in the slightest. This all feels misconceived from the get-go. Sometimes it feels like nobody making the movie knew from scene to scene whether Pooh was a construct of Robin’s imagination or an actual living being. Different moments imply different conclusions until the end, where the requirements of the narrative force them to decide Pooh is real, and a non-controversial presence around real people.
Paddington 2 is about a cute bear, too, but the world around Paddington is visually constructed to express a world in which his presence makes sense, where the characters around him live emotional lives catered to the specific lessons he’s teaching them. There is nothing “realistic” about them because “realism” is just codeword for “boring.” The result is that the Paddington series presents a story and world with free reign to be clever on an aesthetic level (comparisons to Wes Anderson are not hyperbole) but also responsive to the foundational lessons at the heart of each movie, conveyed by their title character. It also lets them base action sequences on Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
There is no level of visual creativity in Christopher Robin, and there couldn’t be on the level of Paddington anyway because the movie isn’t about anything. A simple movie about Pooh getting into trouble with his friends in the woods would’ve been more insightful and far more entertaining. I don’t need Disney to sell me two hours of callbacks to classic Winnie the Pooh cartoons mixed in with a story about someone who “shouldn’t have grown up.” That’s because growing up isn’t a bad thing. Paddington 2 teaches us that if we’re kind and polite, the world will be right but never says we can shirk our responsibility to be kind if things don’t go our way. Christopher Robin teaches us to go on vacation sometimes. Not everyone can just choose to go on vacation. Not everyone can choose to simply sit and do nothing until someone else does something. In a way, this movie is the thematic antithesis of Paddington 2. Being kind is a choice all of us make each and every day.
That is why you should stop comparing this trite garbage with Paddington 2.
It genuinely breaks my heart to give Christopher Robin a bad review because when I think of Pooh’s little smile, my heart flutters a bit. But then I remember how boring the rest of the movie is and it just makes me a little sad. A swing and a miss.