Childhood nostalgia, made palatable for adult sensibilities, is the recurrent theme of a great many summer blockbusters. There’s a sweet spot ensuring maximum financial success: The revived concepts of our youth must be familiar enough to ensure audience intrigue, but also hauled into the 21st century in order to address contemporary anxieties. Who better to acquaint us with the military-industrial complex than the Transformers, or the concept of universal genocide than The Avengers? The formula has diminishing returns. Audiences are better trained than ever to sniff out a cash grab with no other ideas besides a marketable name, and a blandly chiseled Taylor or Henry in the lead role. To dislodge our brittle heart strings, corporate studios must dig even deeper into vaults to find a character capable of handling the emotional labor.
Enter Winnie, last name the Pooh. For decades, Pooh, a pantless bear prone to sentimental observations about love and companionship, has provided children with a moral framework to guide their ascent to adulthood, soul intact. There is no scowling villain in Pooh (only a bastardized, fictionalized elephant called a “heffalump”), no blushing love interest (only honey). But there are Pooh’s friends, all of who may be smarter than Pooh but still need this silly old bear to identify and heal their spiritual flaws — Piglet his timidness, Eeyore his gloominess, etc. And there is Christopher Robin, the boy who comes to Hundred Acre Wood to play with Pooh, and a stand-in for the young reader learning to indulge his childhood, while also bidding it an appropriate farewell.
So the grown-up Christopher Robin, played by Ewan McGregor in a new Disney movie of the same name, doesn’t need much of an explanation to be tangible to us. He is a child who grew up, and put away childish things. Who can’t relate? Nonetheless, Christopher Robin gives us a backstory in its opening credits. The juvenile Christopher was first forced to say goodbye to Pooh and his friends in order to attend boarding school. Then, his father died, making him man of the house. Then, he went to World War II to fight the Nazis. Finally, he got a job. The message is clear: Christopher Robin didn’t lose his soul through any extraordinary means, but because he had to participate in capitalist society.
Undoubtedly, if you are in the audience watching this, you can already relate. The London of Christopher Robin is a grey, drab place filled with trench coats and umbrellas, and the perfect place to meet the adult Christopher. At the start of the movie, he’s forced to abandon his wife and daughter at their country cottage in order to work through the weekend, and ensure his employees won’t be laid off by a lazy boss. From there, we cut to an equally drab Hundred Acre Wood, shrouded in fog and populated with dessicated trees, where a worn-out Pooh — the orange glow of the Disney cartoons swapped for unwashed brown fur — has lost his friends. Wherever could they be? In his searching he ends up at the rickety door where he used to meet Christopher Robin — a door he opens for the first time in years, in the hopes his old friend can help him find the others.
The original Winnie the Pooh stories and cartoons implied that Winnie and his friends were the imaginative inventions of a bored Christopher Robin — or that, perhaps, there were just some magical reality where all these talking animals happened to live within walking distance of a real human boy. The logic of Christopher Robin skews closer to the latter: The door connecting worlds is like the wardrobe of Narnia, and so when Pooh pops out and greets Robin as he agonizes over “what to do, what to do” on a park bench, the conflicted middle manager is confused for about five seconds. “This can’t be happening,” he says. “It’s stress.”
“But it’s not stress,” Pooh says in his sotto voce oatmeal voice. “It’s Pooh.”
Instead of committing himself to an asylum, he accepts this immediately. Such is the movie’s core dynamic: Christopher Robin attempts to apply sound reasoning to the situation at hand, only for Pooh to wrench him back into the land of the fantastic with one of these plain-stated koans sure to test the resolve of any internet pedant ready to launch a Reddit thread pointing out the plot holes. Like: If the Hundred Acre Wood has been accessible all this time, why did Christopher Robin stay away? You know what might cure the depression brought out by a dead father, or the Holocaust? Frolicking with some talking stuffed animals in a verdant forest.
But whatever. Christopher Robin helps Pooh find his friends, though he’s not the only one who discovers something he’s let slip away. McGregor’s dependable facade, framed by his genteel voice and soft, blue eyes, crumbles when forced to consider how his insistent responsibility has pushed away his wife (a restrained Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (a Matilda-esque Bronte Carmichael). “I’m lost,” he admits to Pooh, as they sit on a fallen tree trunk overlooking the Wood. “But I found you,” Pooh says. Hearing this, Robin begins to cry, and hugs the personification of his lost childhood as tightly as possible.
The theme plays out as Pooh and his friends must eventually come to London (back and forth and back and forth they go — the magical door apparently has no preconditions or limitations) to help Robin get good with his boss, and in the process meet his wife and daughter. Can Robin get out of his present jam by remembering his past self? The movie is not subtle about what it wants you to think about; everything is there in one of the trailers. How it works for you depends on your own connection to Pooh. I was almost viscerally inspired to emotion within a literal minute of the movie’s start — I counted — as soon as Pooh’s lived-in voice hit my ears, and tractor beamed me back to my childhood days. Somewhat cannily, Disney got Jim Cummings, who’s voiced Pooh for the last 30 years, to reprise the role. He sounds exactly the same; all that’s changed is his appearance, which is a little worse for the wear. Of course, so is ours.
The supporting characters are compelling in their own right. Madeline is recognizable to anyone who was ever an intelligent, overworked child trying to make their parents happy at great personal cost. Tigger’s loopy provocations and bouncy tail force you to pay attention; Eeyore’s mopey expressions might make him a depression icon for the Instagram set. But it’s Pooh who provides the emotional grist. The movie may not blow you away, but if Pooh pokes any dormant feelings loose, you’ll pay attention just to see how he fits into our adult, rational world.
If you never, ever cared about him, I imagine the effect is considerably diminished. My theater was comprised entirely of adults; there was one child, accompanied by his grandfather, who wandered up and down the aisles through the movie, attention span apparently unyoked by the sober moralism. But the point was not lost on my fellow moviegoers. When Christopher Robin leans over to embrace Pooh, their choked sobs were audible over the stirring strings of the soundtrack.