Reel Dad: Christopher Robin – Disappointing return to favorite characters

Some movies sound better than they actually turn out.

Perhaps something happens between the concept and the screen. Maybe the various elements don’t work as well in production as in a writer’s imagination. Or it could be that too many cooks try to control the cinema kitchen. Whatever the reasons, some films disappoint.

Christopher Robin is a major letdown.

On paper, the idea sounds promising. Take the beloved characters of the famed stories for children, package them with the polish that computer generation can create, and give them voices from talented vocal actors. Place the cuddly creatures in a simple but touching plot involving a grownup Christopher Robin — years after he says goodbye to the fantasies of the forest — and decorate the proceedings with the usual Disney veneer. What could go wrong? Well, for this take on such a tale, too much gets lost from concept to delivery to hold our attention on screen.

Following a seemingly endless prologue — to remind us why we loved Pooh in the first place — the film focuses on a grown-up Christopher Robin who much too closely resembles, in spirit not appearance, the dour Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins. Yes, all he cares about is work, with little time or attention left for his wife, daughter or memories of his childhood in the forest with the cuddly creatures we remember. But being a workaholic dad is rarely popular in Disney movies, so the grown-up Robin sets himself up to be taught a lesson when, all of a sudden, he must cancel a weekend in the country with his family so he can save the jobs of his coworkers. (At least the change in plans is for a good cause; Mr. Banks only cared about money in the bank.) Leave it to the cuddly Pooh — who magically finds himself in Robin’s home — to interrupt the weekend of work and force Robin to bypass his briefing papers. After all, a spoonful of sugar or, in this case, honey, can always help the medicine go down.

Trying to make sense of the chaos is a helpless Ewan McGregor, given little content to work with in the screenplay credited to three writers. Instead, this resourceful actor is forced to rely on his engaging persona to give Robin any credibility. But the plot works against him. The situations McGregor must navigate give him little opportunity to explore the character’s thoughts, forcing him to facially react when the screenplay offer few meaningful words to interpret. If an actor could win an award for building a performance from nothing, McGregor would be in contention.

Such a vacuum in humanity leaves it to the cuddly creatures to give the film its heart. At moments, it works, especially when the stuffed animals find themselves traversing the traffic of busy London streets. Only then do we see what the film could have been, a subtle but sensitive commentary on the clash between childhood fantasy and adult reality. But this promising potential never gets the chance to breathe.

At least Christopher Robin can give parents a risk-free adventure to share with your children. But there are better movies that deliver similar messages with more entertainment. Try a musical from 1964 called, you may remember, Mary Poppins.

Film Nutritional Value: Christopher Robin

  • Content: Medium. In their effort to re-film every possible old idea, the Disney people try to breathe new life into the story of Winnie the Pooh.
  • Entertainment: Medium. While the sequences featuring Pooh and his friends can be entertaining, they get swallowed by a meaningless look at adult realities.
  • Message: Medium. Because the film focuses so much on the challenges of a grown-up Christopher Robin, it misses the chance to celebrate the imagination of childhood.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to share a film as a family is always welcome. But this movie fails to touch the heart as well as dazzle the eyes.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The movie may be fun for those who remember the Pooh stories. But it’s not a film to be remembered.

Christopher Robin is rated PG for “some action”. It runs 1 hours and 44 minutes. 2 1/2 Popcorn Buckets.

Cinderella, once again, works her magic

Oh, Cinderella, like Winnie the Pooh, we just can’t get enough of you.

For more than 500 years, children of all ages have cherished your magical story of finding true love thanks to the generosity of your fairy godmother, a team of friendly mice and a host of other animals and vegetables. Your story reached new audiences with the animated version from Walt Disney in 1950 followed by the musical adaptation for television by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1957. And, four years ago, you sang an appearance in the movie version of Into the Woods.

Then, in 2015, you got the widescreen, live-action treatment in this lovely movie, again from the Disney magicians. But how could moviemakers breathe new life into your story? Just like at a wedding, the creative storytellers bring something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue to this new interpretation of your tale.

The something old is, actually, the narrative itself. The various interpretations on screen — from Mary Pickford’s silent version in 1914 to a little-remembered musical The Slipper and the Rose in 1976 — tell the story of a young lady who is mistreated by her stepmother, seeks solace in her corner with her animal friends, and wishes for a miracle to escape her humdrum life. The new film adds something new by starting the story earlier when “Ella” is a young girl who adores her parents and thrives in her life in the woods. When her mother dies, and her father remarries a bitter woman, we sense that tough times may be ahead, especially when we first hear the giggles of the obnoxious step sisters. By adding backstory to the film, screenwriter Chris Weitz helps us understand how the renamed Cinderella could stay so positive on her grim days.

The film also borrows elements that worked in the past. While these friendly mice don’t sing and dance — as they do in the 1950 Disney version — they are just about as animated in their computer-generated movements and expressions. And while any chance to watch Cate Blanchett chew scenery is welcome — especially in her smashing wardrobe by the great Sandy Powell — her wicked stepmother seems more influenced by the late Joan Crawford than the words of the Brothers Grimm. But who can quibble with all the fun this double Oscar winner brings to the screen? And the lovely Lily James — so memorable in Downton Abbey — creates a fresh view of the heroine especially when she attends the ball in a lovely blue gown that the fun Helena Bonham Carter creates in a rich cameo as the fairy godmother.

By offering just enough of what we expect — and the right amount of new material to stretch our experience — the revised Cinderella helps us appreciate a familiar story in a new way. And, like the best of Disney, unlike Christopher Robin, it inspires us to believe in the possibilities of happy endings. But, Cinderella, I did find myself wanting to hear you and your stepmother sing. So many interpretations of your story include songs that I hoped Blanchett would deliver a show-stopping 11 o’clock number. Maybe next time.

Cinderella is rated PG for “mild thematic elements.” The film runs 105 minutes.

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