October 2018

Arts & Letters

A man and his bear: Marc Forster’s ‘Christopher Robin’

By Shane Danielsen
Adults will find this new tale of Winnie the Pooh surprisingly moving

 

He seemed at once like a good father. Perhaps a single dad, having his Saturday outing; you wondered, as he ushered them into the cinema, if all three little girls were his. They edged along our row, weighed down with popcorn and Red Vines and sodas almost as big as themselves, and took their seats as the lights dimmed for the trailers.

First was Smallfoot – basically Monsters, Inc. with improved fur-rendering and diminished wit. Then Cate Blanchett cashing a cheque in The House With a Clock in Its Walls. And finally a teaser for Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo. (And has there been a better trailer this year, incidentally, than this one? The film may prove redundant, but that 90-second promo fairly sings.) At last the cinema went fully dark, the excited whispers from the middle of the row ceased, and Christopher Robin began.

I spent the following 104 minutes laughing and weeping in more or less equal measure – as did my wife, sitting beside me. At one particularly anguished moment, she whispered tightly, “Oh, god.” Winnie the Pooh had just told the grown-up Christopher Robin – whom he’d not seen in more than 30 years – that he’d thought about him every day, and we could feel our hearts being broken into shards and ground into a fine, pink dust.

Afterwards the credits rolled. “I need a minute,” my wife said, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. Around us, people were filing out of the cinema. A number of the taller patrons, I noticed, were sniffling. I waited, secretly grateful for the delay, and then we gathered our things and left.

As we went down the stairs I felt the unfamiliar, almost vertiginous sensation of having had my expectations thoroughly upended. I hadn’t imagined the film would be good – early word of mouth had been discouraging – but there it was, consistently delightful and frequently excellent. Even Ewan McGregor, an actor I’ve rarely enjoyed onscreen, was terrific in the lead, his initial priggishness yielding to an infectious, entirely credible sense of joy.

Out in the lobby I lined up to validate my parking ticket. And as I waited I saw the same dad approaching, surrounded by his three young charges. “Now hold on a minute while I find this,” he was saying, fumbling in his wallet for his own ticket. But something in his voice, a tightness, made me look again.

His eyes, I saw, were red from crying.

He saw me looking, of course. And a shy, almost abashed smile broke across his face.

“Jesus,” he said softly. “How terrific was that?”

The girls – the film’s intended audience – stared up at us in baffled incomprehension. The movie had been cool: they were discussing it even then, replaying their favourite lines and jokes. It was funny, and Pooh was super adorable. So why were these grown-ups acting so weird?


“To determine the realm in which these dolls have their existence, we have to conclude from their appearance that there are no children in their lives, that the precondition for their origin would be that the world of childhood is past [and that] the doll has finally outgrown the understanding, the involvement, the joy and sorrow of the child; it is independent, grown up, prematurely old; it has entered into the unrealities of its own life.”

A few months ago I bought a book, On Dolls, published by Notting Hill Editions and edited by Kenneth Gross. And among the pieces collected there – excerpts from Baudelaire and Freud, fragments of stories by Kafka and Bruno Schulz, and Elizabeth Bishop’s characteristically odd and beguiling “Cirque d’Hiver” (about a little toy horse with “a formal, melancholy soul”) – was an essay by Rainer Maria Rilke, “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel”, from which the quote above is taken.

Pritzel’s dolls were made for adults, not children. Baroque creations of wax and wire, they featured in numerous exhibitions in Weimar-era Munich, inspiring dancers, writers and artists in the city’s bohemian scene. Rather a long way, you would think, from the bucolic English sensibility of A.A. Milne. Nevertheless it was Rilke’s words that came to mind as I watched Christopher Robin. Reading and watching, I found myself contemplating the same thing: the curious intensity of our relationship with our childhood companions, and the fates to which we later consign them.

That toys can inspire sorrow and even anguish in adults will come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Calvin and Hobbes, or who has sat through the final moments of Toy Story 3. Patient and unchanging, the doll (or teddy bear, or what-have-you) is generally considered a marker of lost innocence, an emissary from the prelapsarian world we once occupied – happily, thoughtlessly – and from which, inevitably, we were expelled. They come to represent not themselves nor even their sentimental burden – the immensity of narrative and emotions we invested in them – but simply the inexorable movement of time. To weep for the abandoned or forgotten doll, it’s said, is actually to weep for ourselves, as the years go by and the clock nudges us ever closer to death.

In fact, I think this is only partly correct. Toys, after all, aren’t merely symbols, but physical objects; moreover, they’re one of the very few things that as children we actually possess. When we outgrow them, when we set them aside, they inevitably change, both in purpose and in nature. And it’s here, amid “the unrealities of its own life”, that a second, darker story might begin. (Rilke again: “Faced with the stolid and unchanging dolls of childhood, have we not wondered again and again, as we might of certain students, what was to become of them?”)

Nevertheless, as its title suggests, Christopher Robin is chiefly about a person. More precisely, it’s about what happened after the events of Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner – and it opens, appropriately, with that book’s final scene, as nine-year-old Christopher, soon to leave for school, spends one last day with his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. A tea party is thrown, Eeyore makes a (mournful) speech, and Christopher and Pooh say their last goodbyes, one of the saddest and loveliest scenes in all English literature.

That this sequence works so well is testament, in part, to the performance of Orton O’Brien as the young Christopher – the rare child-actor you don’t want to slap. But it’s also worth noting that his companions look exactly like a kid’s beloved playthings: battered, grimy, a little threadbare. Indeed, director Marc Forster does something very interesting here, emphasising their toyness (you see, quite clearly, the fabric, the stitching, the buttons-for-eyes) while at the same time using long lenses, a handheld camera and close framing to make them appear far more solid, more convincingly real, than the vast majority of CGI creations.

Besides definitively choosing a side, sitting the viewer in the actual rather than the imagined world, the resulting visual tension brilliantly captures the mysterious and ineffable terms of play, where the child simultaneously knows and chooses to forget that their stuffed playmates are not real. (As such, it’s a rehearsal for the business of watching movies, in which the viewer is constantly required to affirm contradictory truths: yes, that’s Tom Cruise up there, friend of Xenu – but it’s also Ethan Hunt, super-spy. That’s Gal Gadot and also Wonder Woman.)

We then proceed through a kind of extended montage – a succession of short scenes, introduced as chapters in some other, undiscovered book – that propels us quickly through the major events of Christopher’s subsequent life. His first day at boarding school. The death of his father. His initial encounter, on the crowded upper deck of a bus, with Evelyn (Hayley Atwell, underused), the woman he will marry. All masterfully edited by Matt Chessé, and set to Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion’s delicate, lovely score, ticking away beneath the action like a pocket watch.

But then, abruptly, the tone shifts gears, with a harrowing glimpse of Christopher at war – a soldier now, his childhood far behind him. Demobbed, he returns to London, to Evelyn and their daughter, Madeline, and begins working at the Winslow Luggage Company as that most irredeemable of things: an efficiency expert. One can hardly conceive a more damning sign of how far he’s fallen.

Before long he’s neglecting his family, working nights and weekends in a vain attempt to satisfy his boss, the lazy and hypocritical Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss at his most oleaginous). The business is failing, he informs Christopher. Hard decisions must be made. “Nothing comes from nothing,” Giles declares flatly, as if he were Lear and Christopher were Cordelia. As Christopher’s wife and child prepare for a long-awaited family weekend, Giles sets his subordinate an undesirable task: cut 20 per cent from the company’s operating budget by Monday morning.

Exasperated, Evelyn and Madeline go to the country without him. Alone in the house, Christopher sees a drawing of Pooh from his childhood, which Evelyn found the day before in a box in the attic. He stares at it for a moment, and then sets it down on the kitchen table. But as he leaves for the office, he absentmindedly knocks a jar of honey over, and its contents seep onto the paper …

As spells of summoning go, it’s not much. But it works. In what can only be described as “another place”, Pooh stirs and wakes from sleep (one that may have lasted years) to find the Hundred Acre Wood derelict, his friends missing and, worst of all, no honey in his larder. So he sets off to find Christopher Robin, believing only he can put matters right once more.

Credited to three screenwriters – American indie stalwart Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures) – the script proceeds through a series of thoroughly predictable beats to an entirely expected outcome. Yet there are vast delights to be had along the way: a sneaky homage to Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon; some physical comedy involving a little bear, a plate of honey and an antique rug; and, above all, Pooh’s oracular pronouncements, which range from the muddled (“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day”) to the mystical (“Sometimes when I’m going somewhere, and I wait, a somewhere comes to me”).

Of course, Christopher must not only rescue his friends, but be saved himself. He returns to the Hundred Acre Wood to find it fogbound (a lovely metaphor) and fallen into ruin. It’s more than a little reminiscent of Le Morte d’Arthur – the dying land, the absent king – and this, too, feels appropriate, for what is childhood if not a kind of Grail quest? Beautifully, limpidly captured by cinematographer Matthias Königswieser (his long shots are especially magnificent), the film charts the process of Christopher’s rebirth, as he becomes once more the hero both his playmates and his family require.

But however immaculate its surface, and as good as McGregor is, nothing in this film quite equals the marvel that is Jim Cummings’ voice as Pooh: rueful, tender, absolutely and undeniably right.

Is it a joyous, defiantly contemporary achievement on the level of Paddington 2? Not quite: it’s more pensive and ambiguous than that. Is it as convulsive and disquieting as Toy Story 3? It is not. But it is very, very good, in part for what occurs onscreen, and in part for the contemplation it inspires and the virtues it extols: friendship, loyalty and imagination. And of doing nothing, which some lofty souls might call mindfulness, but to me simply connotes an openness to the world, coupled with the awareness of one’s own modest, bear-like place within it.

Back in 2011 I was writing an American film, which turned out to be not terribly good, and having my first taste of living in Los Angeles. I’d delivered a draft and was waiting for notes, and the summer heat was relentless, even down at Venice Beach. And so one Tuesday morning, lacking anything better to do, my wife and I drove to a multiplex in Marina del Rey to see Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall’s animated Winnie the Pooh.

It was the first session of the day, and the cinema was almost empty; the only other patrons were a little girl with her father. She was very nicely dressed, as if headed afterwards to a birthday party in Brentwood or Bel Air. The theatre was freezing, in the American style. The seats were old and uncomfortable. But the film was a marvel: a joyous, sure-footed celebration of some beloved characters, alert to and respectful of every detail that made them special in the first place.

As we were leaving the girl said to her father, with a kind of barely suppressed delight, “That was a good movie.” He smiled and took her hand.

It’s easy to forget, in the writing of or about movies, the experience of the ordinary viewer, and the possibility for transcendence. I longed at that moment to write something, someday, that might mean as much to somebody as that film had to that girl. But the years have passed – so very quickly, Pooh! – and I am older, and as yet I still have not.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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