Review: Saving Christopher Robin - A Review of Two Winnie-the-Pooh Films
In the past twelve months, cinema audiences have been treated to not one, but two films based on the eponymous children’s book character, Winnie-the-Pooh. Both focus on male protagonists and explore the psychological effects of growing up and the responsibilities associated with adulthood. Both are live action dramas with frequent forays into animated fantasy sequences. And both films are British / American co-productions with a strong emphasis on the past, nostalgia and heritage.
Goodbye Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis, 2017) is a biographical film about the author A.A Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and the inspiration for his famous literary creation. The film (written by Simon Vaughan and Frank Cottrell-Boyce) adopts a rather sombre approach to the author’s life, foregrounding his traumatic experiences during the First World War as the reason for his fractured relationship with his young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) (Fig. 1). The war remains a haunting legacy for Milne as he experiences recurrent flashbacks which are often triggered by mundane noises. He moves his family to Ashdown Forest in Sussex which provides a brief opportunity for peace and reflection. The film is at its most magical during these scenes, as Milne bonds with his son by creating stories based on his array of cuddly toys and their adventures together. The Sussex landscape looks glorious on screen, the golden sunlight capturing a nostalgic past. In such scenes, the ‘pictorial representation of landscape and beauty of the countryside’ (Chibnall and Petley 2007: 213) combine to create a romanticised sense of ‘Britishness’; imbued in the emotional connection between man and place (and it is only during these scenes that father and son actually connect). The spectacle of the British landscape is provided further significance by the inclusion of fantasy which at one point transforms into winter as Milne plays with Christopher in the snow. This scene does not represent the passage of time but instead appears fuelled by the boy’s vivid imagination; the snowflakes eventually falling back upwards towards the sky underscoring the fantastic.
Goodbye Christopher Robin emphasises the past as an imaginative space, remembered by Milne as an older man looking back with longing for a time when he was most happy and content. As the idea for Winnie-the-Pooh begins to develop, he decides to write the story and illustrate the characters. The artwork of E.H Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), which featured in the original volume first published in 1926, is recreated on screen by animated effects that infiltrate at various moments (Fig. 2). The red balloon featured in later stories is shown as a real object before floating into the treetops and turning into an animated illustration. According to Curtis, such moments were intended to ‘get a sense of the real events that became the world-famous drawings […] a sense of their creation’ (Curtis 2017).
Whilst the visual effects are kept to a minimum in Goodbye Christopher Robin, when they do appear it is typically to underscore the imaginative and creative experience. In contrast, the recent cinema release, Christopher Robin (Marc Forster, 2018), fully embraces its status as a live-action/CGI animation hybrid. The film is based around the fictionalised Christopher (Ewan McGregor) from the books, who is now grown up and struggling to connect with his wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). After some rather lovely opening credits that set out Christopher’s life through a series of illustrated chapters, again inspired by Shepard’s original artwork, the film introduces Winnie-the-Pooh, who re-appears to him at a moment of existential crisis. It is through reconnection with his childhood that Christopher finally learns to understand the true importance of happiness which might sound overly sentimental but, well, this is a Disney production so probably to be expected. What is interesting is that in this film, Pooh and friends are not just imaginary characters but actual creatures that live happily together in Hundred Acre Wood. There are some humorous exchanges when Pooh and co. have to pretend they are toys in front of other people, including a steam train sequence (straight out of Harry Potter) where an exasperated Christopher encourages the ‘silly old bear’ to keep quiet whilst counting everything he sees outside the window.
The toy characters themselves are beautifully crafted with added digitised effects providing realistic timbre to their movement and texture to their appearance. When Pooh jumps on to a table or knocks over a jar of honey, the sound and visuals make it feel as though he is actually there. It is probably no surprise that the visual effects company Framestore, who brought to life another famous bear on screen in the recent Paddington movies, were involved with the production. Oscar-nominated VFX Supervisor Chris Lawrence, known for his contribution on The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), worked with Amination Director Michael Eames and the director Marc Forster in creating the characters. As some critics have noted, the ‘photo-real CG is so tactile and lifelike that it’s thrilling just to watch the stuffed animals hang out and eat honey’ (Ehrlich 2018).
Similar to Goodbye Christopher Robin, Forster's Christopher Robin presents Christopher’s family home as idyllic; not only a nostalgic retreat into childhood but a remnant from the distant past. Both films showcase the British countryside as a magical place that can inspire regeneration and transformation. In addition, both films evoke ‘spectacles of pastness’ which find aesthetic comparison with heritage cinema (Higson 1993: 118). The importance of place is emphasised in the marketing for each film, which foregrounds London landmarks (most notably Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament) in the poster designs (Fig. 3). It is perhaps a nod towards our current political climate that each film depicts an escape to a more tranquil and peaceful existence - even if this refuge is only in the imaginary past.
The two films also provide examples of the on-going trend for live action hybrid animation films about British authors and / or their literary creations. This can be seen in movies such as the Paddington series (Paul King, 2014; 2017) and Peter Rabbit (Will Gluck, 2018), a film which diverts quite drastically from Beatrix Potter’s story but still features illustrated artwork from the original novels. The biographical emphasis found in the Winnie-the-Pooh films also draws on similarities with films such as Miss Potter (Chris Noonan, 2006) and Finding Neverland, a biopic about the creative inspiration for J.M Barrie which was also directed by Forster and released in 2004. All these examples showcase the fantastic through the inclusion of imaginary characters and sequences or CGI creatures who appear to exist in our own ‘real’ world. However, perhaps the most comparable example is Mary Poppins (Robert Stephenson, 1964), a Disney adaptation which combines fantastical animated effects with live action drama in its famous tale about a magical nanny. The ‘pictorial’ depictions of Edwardian England, with its country fairs and afternoon teas (albeit on the ceiling) resonate with more recent portrayals of fantasied Britain as discussed. Furthermore, in Mary Poppins, it is not the two children but the father, Mr Banks, who needs to be ‘saved’. The adult (particularly father figure’s) re-discovery of childhood happiness is often repeated in family films, and this theme is indulged at length in Goodbye Christopher Robin and Christopher Robin. As Ewan McGregor’s protagonist laments to his furry friend: ‘I’m lost’; to which Winnie-the-Pooh replies: ‘But I found you’. With the upcoming release of the sequel Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall, 2018) later this year, it will be fascinating to watch how this trend continues to develop.
Brown, Noel. British Children’s Cinema (London and New York: I.B Tauris, 2017).
Chibnall, Steve and Julian Petley. “Introduction”, Journal of British Cinema and Television 4, no.2 (November 2007): 213-218.
Curtis, Simon. Goodbye Christopher Robin, DVD Commentary (2017).
Ehrlich, David. ‘Christopher Robin’, Indiewire (02/08/2018), available at: https://www.indiewire.com/2018/08/christopher-robin-review-winnie-the-pooh-1201990403/ <accessed 26/08/2018>
Framestore. Christopher Robin, https://www.framestore.com/christopherrobin <accessed 26/08/2018>
Higson, Andrew. “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film,” in Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester Friedman (London: UCL Press, 1993), 109-129.
Movie Magic: Mary Poppins, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prCzpCenJFw <accessed 26/08/2018>
V&A Exhibition, “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic,” (December 9th 2017 – April 8th 2018), available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic <accessed 26/08/2018>
Carolyn Rickards is a Research Associate working on the AHRC project ‘The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema 1955 - 1985’ based at the University of Bristol. She received her PhD from the University of East Anglia in 2015, with publications from this forthcoming in the Journal of British Cinema and Television and Fantasy / Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018).