Tuesday, September 17, 2019

I didn't hate Disney's Christopher Robin nearly as much as I intended to. It was funny when it was trying to be funny and charming when it was trying to be charming. It is hard not be charmed when the adult Christopher Robin walks across the Pooh Sticks Bridge and finds that Eeyore's stick house is still standing and accidentally falls down one of Pooh's heffalump traps. It seems to understand -- or at least have a passing interest in -- A.A Milne's original short stories.

I believe scientists have to write up failed experiments as well as successful ones, so honour demands a review. I am sorry it will not be as funny as it would have been if I had hated it. I promise to get around to the Tolkien biopic in due course. 

Christopher Robin is all growed up. He has a very boring office job working for a company which makes suitcases. His boss, played by Mark Gatiss, needs him to work right through the weekend, even though he had promised to spend it with his wife and little girl. While he is struggling through his sales figures, his old friend Winnie-the-Pooh pops up in the park outside his London home. With, as they say, hilarious consequences.

Almost the best part of the film was the opening credits, in which simplified versions of E.H Shepard's illustrations are gently animated to re-acquaint us with the stories of the boy and his famous bear. These tiny vignettes caught a very large amount of what is entrancing about the original tales. A little boy and his toy animals pull a fat teddy bear out of a rabbit hole. The bear gets stuck up a tree, floating improbably on the end of a toy balloon; the little boy rescues him by bursting the balloon with a toy gun. These animations lead directly into a "live action" version of the final story, "in which" Christopher Robin says goodbye to his childhood friends and leaves the Forest. 

Christopher Robin is played by a child actor and the forest is a real landscape, but the stuffed animals are 3D animations. The toys are part way between "classic Pooh" and "Disney Pooh": Piglet and Eeyore look very like Shepard's pictures but Tigger is pure Disney. Pooh is fuzzy and teddy-like and avoids being too bright a shade of orange, but he retains his red waistcoat. Christopher has a mercifully English accent; no gophers are in evidence. 

The scene starts out by following the book pretty closely, with Rabbit making his pompous "goodbye" speech and Eeyore reading out his awful poem; but it rapidly degenerates into CGI animals throwing bits of cake at each other. I suppose Corporate Pooh can only think in terms of slapstick and farce. Pooh and Christopher go to their enchanted place and say goodbye and deliver most of the lines from the book. The line "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you" has been changed to "I am not going to do nothing any more. They don't let you in boarding school." We zoom through Christopher Robin's post Forest life -- school, army, death of parents, marriage, baby, job -- in a few moments, and then the story proper gets under way.

I remember when we were surprised by Roger Rabbit and Jar-Jar Binks and Gollum: but now we all accept that a stuffed kangaroo can be part of the cast of a movie. The day is not infinitely remote when the idea that human actors had to go into a studio and perform their lines will seem outdated and quaint. Fortunately that day hasn't come quite yet: Ewan McGregor carries the film almost single-handedly. The whole of the second act consists of him interacting with a CGI bear; the bear is joined by an entire CGI menagerie, but no humans, in act three. Ewan only gets to talk to actual actors in the finale. I never once doubted him.

The film has essentially the same plot as Hook -- the distant work-obsessed father remembers his own childhood and reconnects with his family -- but McGregor never allows the adult Christopher Robin to come across as a monster. We entirely believe that he is unwillingly forgoing his holiday because Mycroft Holmes has forced him to; that he deeply loves his daughter but honestly thinks that making her cram to get into a prestigious boarding school is the right thing to do. He doesn't embarrassingly revert to childhood, but there's a light in his eyes when he meets his old friends and starts to remember the olden days. He pitches the thing entirely right; treating Pooh partly as a naughty child and partly as an embarrassing old college mate.

And he never once calls him "my young apprentice".

The "iconic" theme song only troubles the score a couple of times, and even I can't begrudge the brief reprise of The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers. ("He does that a lot," says Eeyore, gloomily.) But I have always found the Disney version of the willy-billy-silly-old Bear incredibly charmless. Slow and lugubrious, it is very hard to imagine this Pooh composing a pome or inventing a honey pot shaped boat. Almost his only personality trait is that he sometimes says the kinds of things that you can put on greetings cards and motivational posters. When Christopher Robin said that he liked to do nothing, he did, in fact mean something. He meant that he liked doing the kinds of things which are important to children but which adults don't understand. Playing with toy bears. Having wars with toy soldiers. Making up stories. But Disney-Pooh uses "nothing" simply as a play on words: "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day." It sounds vaguely wise; it goes nicely on a greeting card. But it doesn't actually mean anything at all. (How does the old Irish riddle go? "I am greater than God; I am worse than the devil; dead men eat me; if you eat me, you'll die. What am I?")

When he first visits Christopher Robin's house Pooh knocks over a cup which rolls along the shelf causing everything in the kitchen to crash to the floor. Someone has him confused with Paddington. The other characters come across very much as a rabble of badly behaved toddlers; only Eeyore feels like a character. Never having seen a grown-up before, the animals all assume that Christopher Robin is a heffalump. Which is rather cute.

The film has taken some trouble to think about the metaphysical status of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. It would have been tempting to make Pooh function like Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes: a living being to Christopher Robin, but a stuffed toy to everyone else. But this Pooh definitely has agency and individual life and literal existence -- when people in the real world encounter the crying talking sleeping walking living teddy bear, they are freaked out. Although the film doesn't put it in these terms the Hundred Aker Wood seems to be a separate magical universe connected to our world via a magical tree. The magical tree is situated near Christopher's childhood home, but when Pooh travels back through the, as it were, wardrobe to 1950s England, he emerges in a park near Christopher's Bloomsbury home. "I suppose it is where ever it needs to be," he explains. He may be a bear of very little brain, but he knows a Plot Device when he sees one.

The trouble with this is that it removes any of the symbolism and poignancy which Winnie-the-Pooh could have had. This Pooh is not an imaginary friend: he's just a friend. 

You could make a good story around the question of what happens to imaginary friends when their children grow up. Perhaps they go and find new children to befriend. Perhaps they Cease To Be. Perhaps they wait around like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hoping that their erstwhile playmate will appear again? Peter Yarrow sanctioned a picture book in which a little girl arrives in Puff's cave shortly after Jackie Paper deserts him. Father Christmas told young Christopher Tolkien that he wouldn't be writing for a few years, but would catch up with him when he had children of his own. A cartoon did the rounds on the internet a while back in which a grown up Calvin found an old stuffed tiger when his own little girl was being menaced by monsters under the bed. And there are some people who would say that "where does the delusion go once you are cured of it?" is a silly question, like "where does eighty miles an hour go when the car stops?".

The ending of the House at Pooh Corner is about a boy reaching a point in his life where he no longer plays with stuffed toys. The prologue to Christopher Robin is simply about a boy going off to school. Boarding school at that. It is taken for granted that the fall of man would have been averted if children never had to sleep away from home. Christopher Robin has become so busy with unimportant things like getting married, raising children and defeating the Nazis that he has lost touch with some of the friends he had when he was six years old. Once he gets back in touch with them, he's much happier.

I believe I remember the name of one (non imaginary) friend from when I was six. I haven't spoken to him in twenty five years. I still have some of my cuddly toys, though. The New York Library wasn't interested in taking them off my hands. 

The denouement of the film is quite clever. Christopher Robin applies Pooh's philosophy of "nothing" to the problem of suitcase manufacture and everyone lives happily ever after. Although the luggage company which Christopher Robin works for is very small, it is run by a mega-capitalist who owns nearly all the companies in England. Christopher points out that if he allowed his millions of employees time off to do "nothing"; they would be able to go on holiday and the company would sell millions more suitcases. 

You may think that trades unions had to fight tooth and nail for paid leave: it turns out it was actually gifted by a magic bear. Or perhaps that is the message. A world where mega-capitalists facilitate work-life balance of their own free will is about as likely as a talking teddy?

If this is the 1950s, why do Christopher Robin's "very important papers" appear to have come off a laser printer?

The more I think about the message of the movie, the more puzzled I am. Winnie-the-Pooh, who literally does nothing all day, is happy. When Christopher Robin hung out in the Hundred Acre Woods, throwing sticks in rivers and chasing non-existent heffalumps, he was happy. Now Christopher Robin has a job and a nice house in town and a nice cottage in the country, he is sad. Madeline Robin studies hard all day because her dad wants her to go to a prestigious boarding school: this makes her sad. When she stops studying and starts playing imaginary tennis matches with a balloon, she is happy. Play is good. Work is bad. School is bad: forests and teddy bears are good. Doing stuff is bad. Doing nothing is good. Quit your job. Lower your ambition. Spend more time with your friends and your family. Play instead of studying. Money doesn't buy happiness.

What was it Walt Disney paid to buy Winnie the Pooh from A.A Milne's descendants? Three hundred and fifty million dollars, wasn't it? The real life Christopher Milne's real life daughter got a cheque for forty four million. Which is nice.

There is nothing wrong with giving a child a book which says "be kind and generous and prayerful" when you yourself are cruel and mean and irreligious. That's just perfectly normal hypocrisy. And there is nothing surprising about grown-ups telling children actual deliberate lies. Of course an elephant can't fly if it wants to fly badly enough. But put the idea about and all the other elephants will start to believe that its their own fault they can't fly, that they would have been able to fly if they'd wanted to badly enough, and they will be content with their lot and go and work in luggage factories and not form trade unions like those nasty circus clowns.

But why on earth would anyone feed children with a morality that they themselves don't believe and which they definitely don't want the child to believe? If we all took on board the message of Christopher Robin, then it is certain that movies like Christopher Robin would never get made.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

No comments: