One of the most memorable books I’ve read is Lev Grossman’s 2009 fantasy novel The Magicians, in which a group of disaffected young adults stumbles into the Narnia-like world of their youthful imaginings. But rather than discovering hope and meaning, they find only a new canvas on which their worst, most hedonistic instincts play out. It’s a haunting indictment of “escapist” impulses in fantasy literature.
Christopher Robin—a spiritual sequel to A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh stories centered on their human protagonist (Ewan McGregor)—springs from a similar premise, but takes precisely the opposite thematic tack. If The Magicians is a story about the loss of innocence, Christopher Robin is a tale of regaining it.
As the film opens, Christopher bids farewell to his childhood companions—Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, and the rest—and departs the Hundred Acre Woods for boarding school. In an Up-style opening montage, we see his life unfold: being reprimanded by his teachers for daydreaming, mourning the sudden death of his father, meeting his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and struggling across the grisly battlefields of World War II.
Upon his return from the war—and first meeting with his daughter—Christopher takes a job as efficiency manager at a luggage manufacturer. We meet adult Christopher just as he’s charged with reducing company expenses by 20 percent, a grim task likely involving headcount reduction. What’s more, the project will require him to work all weekend, forcing him to break a previous promise to accompany Evelyn and his daughter to the countryside.
Help is on the way though. The Hundred Acre Woods have grown dark and gloomy since Christopher’s departure, and Pooh won’t stand for it. The beloved bear slips through a hidden gateway and into London, where he’s promptly reunited with his old friend.
Got all that?
One thing’s for sure: Christopher Robin is a strange sort of movie, one that, unusually for risk-averse Hollywood, doesn’t clearly cater to a particular demographic. It’s a slow, elegiac film, largely taken up with long scenes of Christopher and Pooh talking about—I’m not kidding—the nature of the good life. And true to that sensibility, in this retelling Pooh occupies a space somewhere between Yoda and Socrates. He’s less interested in honey and pratfalls than in rekindling Christopher’s joy in being.
It’s Christopher Robin’s depiction of the loss of that joy that hits the hardest (and likely resonates the least with young viewers). A key subplot, for instance, involves Christopher’s fixation on his daughter’s test results. When she asks him to read to her before bedtime, he immediately turns to a textbook on industrialization in Victorian England. Children may know instinctively that something’s off about this, but they won’t really grasp the sharpness of the film’s point.
Indeed, in many ways kids don’t really seem to be the target audience here. Sure, there are a few Disneyesque storytelling flourishes, especially towards the end, but these feel more like afterthoughts than focal points. With the exception of its detailed CGI animal characters, this is a fairly spartan and restrained production (and I mean that in the best possible way). Goofiness is kept to a minimum.
Instead, and perhaps surprisingly, Christopher Robin is genuinely willing to let its hero mature. This becomes clear when it’s viewed alongside its closest analogue, Steven Spielberg’s Hook, which followed an adult Peter Pan who’d forgotten the ways of Neverland. In Hook, Peter’s “redemption” is largely accomplished through his return to the ways of childhood. In order to vanquish his foe, he must step back into the identity of Peter Pan, an emotional and spiritual regression. As a result, what’s meant to delight—Peter’s return—comes off as merely depressing.
Christopher Robin rejects that tradeoff. His odyssey is less a journey of personal self-discovery than a roundabout road to rejoining his family and to being the father that his daughter needs. The fundamental lesson of the film is that one can always embrace the essential values of the Hundred Acre Woods—gratitude, contemplation, and imagination—without sacrificing the wisdom learned in the crucible of adult life. In short, rather than encouraging adults to be more childish, it exhorts adults to be more fully adult. And that is a surprising and welcome insight.
In so doing, Christopher Robin moves beyond the nihilism of The Magicians and its ilk. This is not a story of destroying innocence by importing the baggage of adulthood into the past, but the opposite. It’s a tale of restoring hope by applying the maxims of the past to the present. Live in such a way that you cherish family and apprehend beauty, the film reminds us. You knew this once. Remember it in the face of material temptation.
That’s not a message I would have found particularly intelligible as a child. I probably would have wanted more action, more danger, more overt onscreen drama. But watching it through older eyes, I find that the movie’s refusal to gratify those desires is what makes it so unexpectedly moving.
As C.S. Lewis once memorably wrote, “some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” It’s in that spirit that Christopher Robin succeeds.
John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post and a graduate of Yale Law School.