A delightful treat as sweet as honey.
There has yet to be a full-on stinker in the roster of Disney’s recent spate of live-action adaptations of their famed materials. Some unmemorable maybe (Cinderella, Malificent), others actually rather good, such as last year’s Beauty and the Beast. But their latest is possibly their most secretly treasured property yet – Winnie the Pooh. Much different to last year’s much colder, grounded but impressive Goodbye Christopher Robin, this time around we have the same title just without the Goodbye, but this is an emotional grenade of transportative joy. It’s a low-key celebration of a cherished part of British literature that, although stumbles in tonal lapses and unbalanced writing, lands the key heartstring-tugging moments to clinical effect.
Beginning with a short chronicle of the gleeful-turned-strict childhood of the Hundred Acre Wood’s favourite visitor, we catch up with Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) as an adult, hard at work for a luggage company. His official position is an ‘Efficiency Manager’, under the snobbish, conservative thumb of his boss, Keith Winslow (a pantomimic performance from Mark Gatiss). Christopher cares too much about his career, however, depriving him from family time with his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and his desperate-to-impress daughter, Madeleine (Bronte Carmichael).
Christopher seems to be letting down everyone these days, from his staff to his boss, to his whole family. As he sits down, accepting his midlife crisis and on the brink of collapse, asking himself, “What to do, what to do?”, who appears behind him – his silly old bear, huskily responding “What to do, indeed.” Pooh is very much back, and he needs Christopher’s help to find his friends. From here begins a self-redemptive sort of character journey we’ve seen plenty of times before, with this take taking key inspirations from classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life and the underrated Where The Wild Things Are. As you would expect, it’s a little predictable as the film sends the titular character on a clear path that only leads to somewhere. But as a bear with not much brain once wisely said, “Sometimes when I’m going somewhere and I wait, a somewhere comes to me.”
The enigmatic, tit-bit quotes from Pooh never grow tiresome, nor does his initial quarrelling with Christopher as they embark on a chaotic journey through London. The ‘fish out of water’ plot is a common one, but it’s executed perfectly with Pooh. The funny thing is, this idea is turned on its head when Christopher returns to the Wood, unrecognisable to his fellow creatures (and they’ve all returned; Piglet, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo). This was his home, but he’s lost sight of himself so much that he appears to his former friends as an evil, happiness-sucking Heffalump. This kickstarts an often heart-warming segment of the movie, as Christopher becomes reacquainted with his fuzzy pals. There’s an especially crushing scene, which will draw many a tear across the country, with Christopher and Poo sitting on a dusk-covered log.
But the film can’t quite decide what it wants to be at times. The opening half hour is very bumpy, presenting our lead as a fairly unsympathetic hammer-fist, keen to rush his daughter into the real world without relishing the joys of childhood. But his main turnarounds in character are a little abrupt, cushioned only by the presence of creatures we all know and love. They really do elevate the film to the touching heights it reaches, with fantastic voice work across the board, most of all from Jim Cummings, of course playing Pooh, but with an aged, yet enduring wisdom and confidence in the spirit of people, but mainly his best friend. The nostalgic tones of Cummings will make you feel right at home, like a hug you never quite want to end.
Hayley Atwell is perfectly adequate but not given much to do at all. Carmichael’s character is deprived of much more delicate development, instead presented as a template of a girl who misses her hard-working Dad. But her enthusiasm and well-portrayed innocence help give her some memorable purpose, as well as her importance in the hectic final act caper. A.A. Milne would be perfectly satisfied with the presentation of his creations – they are legitimately perfect. It’s the humans that bring about issues with the film, with the team of writers (Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder) not implementing enough natural heart in their interactions. Scenes between McGregor and Carmichael often feel very contrived in their conflict or resolutions, nor is there much improvement in the chemistry with Atwell. There are some hilarious lines from Pooh, such as his complaints of being hungry, but when Christopher tells him he’s just eaten, he replies, “Oh yes, I must not have eaten enough.” But thankfully, the writers can be partially forgiven as the real attraction of the piece is the fantastical characters; however, this problem does prevent the film from reaching real greatness.
Marc Forster’s direction is good overall, with some stunning touches throughout, including a screenshot-worthy silhouette Deakins would approve of. In the city scenes he has a firm hand on the comedic slapstick potential, and in the Wood, he evokes the will to play as he leads us through the world, but sometimes loses the polish that helps other scenes shine. There is a lesson to be learned here though. It’s okay to play; there’s more to life than work, and there’s more to happiness than a steady career. There’ll be a time when everyone needs to take on Pooh’s mantra, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best something.”