From “Mary Poppins” to “Freaky Friday” to “The Santa Clause,” Disney’s movie library is filled with stories of work-distracted parents learning that family is more important than career — but it’s jarring to see that idea applied to Winnie the Pooh’s human friend in the live-action tale “Christopher Robin.”
It’s jarring in part because of Disney’s interpretation of A.A. Milne’s stories and Ernest Shepard’s drawings that usually put Christopher Robin on the sidelines, gently tut-tutting the “silly old bear” after one of his misadventures. Here, he’s front-and-center, a harried adult played by Ewan McGregor.
In the movie’s downbeat prologue, we see Christopher Robin’s forced march into adulthood. He leaves behind the Hundred-Acre Wood when his parents ship him off to boarding school. We then witness him, in short order, dealing with his father’s death, falling in love and marrying Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), going off to fight in World War II, returning to Evelyn and his daughter Madeline, and landing a job as an efficiency expert in a luggage manufacturer.
(This story, we soon realize, also has nothing to do with the real Christopher Milne, who reportedly despised his father’s stories because of the celebrity that accompanied their success. That story was told last year, to dreary effect, in the movie “Goodbye Christopher Robin.”)
As we watch Christopher become a sad-sack pencil-pusher, preparing to send poor Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) to the same boarding school he attended, it’s easy to forget that director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “The Kite Runner”) is making a children’s movie. Only when Madeline finds a stash of her father’s drawings of Winnie the Pooh does the story come to life — because that discovery reawakens Pooh, who crawls out of the Hundred-Acre Wood and into London, reuniting with Christopher at a most inconvenient time.
Instead of preparing the important presentation he must give at work, Christopher takes Pooh back to Sussex — Christopher’s old play place, where Evelyn and Madeline are having a weekend without him — to help the bear relocate his missing friends.
Forster brings Pooh and company to life through computer animation that makes the characters look like felt-and-plush stuffed animals — except for Rabbit and Owl, who are designed to resemble real creatures.
While the script — a disjointed tag-team effort credited to Alex Ross Perry (who made the Sundance entries “Listen Up Philip” and “Golden Exits”), Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) and Allison Schroeder (“Hidden Figures”) — swerves from midlife crisis to bouncy adventure, Forster keeps many of the old Disney hallmarks alive.
The voice cast is centered by veteran Jim Cummings, who took over voicing Pooh in 1988 (from the legendary Sterling Holloway) and Tigger (replacing the great Paul Winchell) in 1990. And the music of the Sherman Brothers, who penned the original Pooh and Tigger themes, permeates Jon Brion’s score, with Richard M. Sherman, still spry at 90, writing three new songs for the film — and appearing at the piano singing one of them in a jaunty midcredits scene.
McGregor and Atwell, once they emerge from the nostalgic fog of the movie’s first half-hour, buoyantly embrace the silliness of the story. But “Christopher Robin” is, in the end, all about Winnie the Pooh, and how the “bear of very little brain” again proves to be the wisest of us all.
Winnie the Pooh’s human friend is facing grown-up problems in a live-action story that pulls itself out of its heffalump trap to deliver a charming adventure.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 3.
Rating • PG for some action.
Running time • 104 minutes.