Of all the shared traits and narrative strategies of Pixar films over the years, their most unifying theme has been this: Growing up is an act of aggression. We all must do it, of course, but know this, kid: When you do grow up and leave your childish toys and memories and parents behind, you are renting the fabric of your support system, your very self. The toys will feel mortally betrayed; they will tumble into three films worth of identity crises. The memories will wander alone through the infinite indices of your mind, wondering if anyone will ever remember them before finally dying, alone and forgotten. It is undeniable that growing up can be traumatic in big and small ways, but the Pixar films are unique in the way they frame it as an act of cruelty on the part of the person growing up. I have always been a little skeptical about whether this messaging is meant to discourage kids from growing up too fast, or make the adults who already have feel bad about it. My suspicion is that it’s more of the latter.
The looming threat is always some imagined bleak wasteland that the characters, happily, narrowly avoid. We picture with dread the childhood home — whether physical or emotional or mental — falling into ruin and disrepair when the child moves on to other things, and, crucially, no other children arriving to inhabit that space or take up the loves and interests of the departed older child. Christopher Robin, the “live-action” “sequel” of sorts to the Winnie the Pooh franchise, actually takes place in that imagined wasteland. It is one of the more sadistic family films I have ever seen, a picture of the residents of a neglected childhood reckoning with the abandonment of their beloved, now grown-up human leader.
Appropriately enough, the film was directed by Marc Forster, the director of both Finding Neverland and World War Z. It opens with a uniquely upsetting prologue that puts Up to shame: Young Christopher Robin, about to be sent off to boarding school, enjoys one last day with his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood, and one last stroll and chat with the dearest of these, Winnie the Pooh. Rather than spend the last day woefully ruminating on their impending separation, they spend it doing what they like best: playing Poohsticks, watching the sunset, and talking about nothing. It’s almost as if Pooh is a dog being sent to live on a farm, or a robot boy granted one last day with his human mommy. At one point, we see Pooh’s paw passing over the reeds of lavender set aglow by magic hour light, as if he’s already arrived at his final resting place in the fields of Elysium.
There’s already a forlorn feel to the “real life” renderings of Christopher’s friends, particularly the stuffed ones (Owl and Rabbit are an actual owl and rabbit, a distinction you may remember from your own childhood but all the more striking in this realistic imagining). The look of a well-loved stuffed animal is a hard one to replicate, and they are heartbreakingly good here: matted fur, colors faded from days spent out in the sun, noses rubbed threadbare. Their movements are minimal, not far beyond what a child could accomplish by propping up their stuffed companion and making it “talk.” It’s a great effect, endlessly adorable, but also deeply uncanny. The animals’ beady, impassive eyes and Matthias Koenigswieser’s sapped color palette had my ruined adult mind constantly anxious that it was teetering on the edge of Chucky-esque horror.
The bulk of the film takes place 30 years or so later, when Christopher (Ewan McGregor) has grown up, gotten married, had a child, gone to war, and now works as an efficiency expert for a luggage company in London. (If you are a real-life efficiency expert, double check that you are not actually in a movie and about to learn an important lesson about living in the moment.) Miles away in rural Sussex, Pooh wakes up, as we are to imagine he has been waking up for the past 30 years, all alone in a muddy, color-sapped Hundred Acre Wood, blanketed by fog and blustering dead leaves. On this day of all days, when the joyless Christopher must stay in the city and work while his wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter spend the weekend in the country, Pooh comes to find him.
It’s easy to imagine how the rest of this pans out — the downtrodden Christopher, having become the very kind of monster he and Pooh were terrified of when he was a child (they’re called Heffalumps and Woozles, for the uninitiated), reunites with his animal posse and rediscovers the virtues of his child self. But where can such a reunion reasonably lead? If you visited your childhood home and found your old favorite stuffed toy, would you take it home and begin sleeping with it again? Christopher Robin more or less believes that you would, and what’s more, it would be the morally right and spiritually healthy thing to do. Never mind that Christopher has a daughter who could clearly stand to inherit her father’s hours of open-ended playtime in the woods, and the company he kept. Pooh & Co. needn’t wander around in the dark forest alone forever.
Christopher Robin is faithful to A.A. Milne’s sensibilities, to the letter in some respects, and his little profundities remain intact in the script. “I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been,” Pooh ruminates at one point. I find it odd that a figure that has since been appropriated as a kind of Western zen master has been used in service of a story so invested in stopping that walk altogether.