Film Review: ‘Christopher Robin’: Terrific Teachings of Taoism Taught by Toys
My favorite Facebook 1970s meme is of a boy, pedaling furiously, with his bike’s back wheel in a mud puddle, and his little brother squatting behind, face planted firmly in the rear-wheel mud rooster-tail spray—wearing a dive mask and snorkel. The caption reads, “Rare Footage of Mud Scientists Conducting Experiments.”
That’s a fabulous depiction of the era that a “Winnie the Pooh”-type childhood belonged to: the halcyon days of mud-puddle crawling, Stingray banana-bike riding (sans helmet!), Big Wheels, Hot Wheels, slingshots, bare feet, Dairy Queens, and setting off bricks of Black Cat Firecrackers three days before the Fourth of July.
Actually, “Winnie the Pooh” harks back to a far earlier time, when childhood was even more innocent and precious: the British 1920s, when the solitary Christopher Robin had rustic, stuffed animal toys that came to life in his mind, in the Hundred Acre Wood. You can pretty much only find this type of childhood preserved nowadays in Rudolf Steiner school kindergartens, where development of the imagination is sacrosanct.
The current imagination-annihilation (by smartphone) childhood is profoundly tragic. And in Disney’s “Christopher Robin,” that tragic state is represented by the first-ever depiction of an adult Christopher Robin (a very game Ewan McGregor).
Mr. Robin’s got a wife and daughter and heaps of responsibility. He’s completely and utterly forgotten his fuzzy little friends, and especially forgotten the Taoist-sage musings of Pooh Bear.
This is a story of how Mr. Robin gets back to a simpler, now-based, grateful way of living.
Is the film any good? Maybe it’s not bad for a wee viewer. Will it satisfy parents who insist everything their kids watch must also be equally enjoyable to them? There must be a new PC term for that by now: If it’s only enjoyable to small children, that’s like cinematic-adultist? Adult-ableist filmmaking? Sigh.
All Grown Up
As mentioned, the 6-year-old of our memories is now an ineffectual, institutionalized, Industrial Revolution-programmed, capitalist soft man, badly in need of a New Warrior Training Adventure.
Mr. Robin’s got a stuffy job overseeing the efficiency department of a luggage company. Promotions! Sales! Overbearing boss: “Are you a sinker or a swimmer?” Christopher Robin’s become a workaholic. Sad.
He’s lost all his sense of humor and play and is presently indoctrinating his daughter with all kinds of deadly, gray, intention-setting boringness.
The film begins with a farewell party thrown by his buddies Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore the donkey, Kanga and her baby Roo, Owl, and Rabbit. Christopher wistfully walks down memory lane with Pooh before heading to boarding school, where one puts away childish things and heads for adult “success.”
Later, at the crux of Robin’s job responsibilities (he needs to fire employees), his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) pressure him to work less and accompany them on vacation to Sussex. He promised and then reneged. Basically, it’s time for a major change or a nervous breakdown.
Dimension-Hopping Stuffed Toys
And so he is visited—like unto Scrooge with his three spirits—by his spirit animal. That would be the fuzzy, straw-colored, honey-loving bear.
This spirit of Pooh Bear enters a portal to a future dimension that starts in the tree trunk of his own abode in the Hundred Acre Wood and ends up next to Christopher Robin on a London park bench.
But is it the spirit of Pooh? He looks quite physical. Perhaps, since there’s so much Taoism in these magical tales, Pooh is an enlightened bear who can de-materialize for purposes of apparating (oh wait! That’s a Harry Potter term. Then again, since this all takes place in England, and since it’s recently been decided that Mary Poppins also attended Hogwarts—why not Pooh, too?) and re-materialize elsewhere?
The toy animals are well-conceived—very simple and stuffed toy-ish, and yet they convey the innocence of that age where a child’s powerful imagination can easily create worlds populated by heffalumps, and such.
The only thing I objected to was all the animals having appropriately quaint British accents, sounding like the vocal equivalents of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, except for Eeyore (voiced by basso-profundo American actor Brad Garrett), who sounds like the vocal equivalent of a Philly Cheesesteak. The British/American incohesiveness jangled my sensibilities.
On top of that, this Eeyore is distinctly passive aggressive, for adult humor’s sake, as opposed to displaying the true melancholia of the real Eeyore, where everything was just simply sad. Woe befell that little donkey wherever he went. Such an Eeyore would have been more compassion-inducing for the littles.
Lastly, there was rather a bit too much of Pooh slurping honey, smearing honey, stepping in honey, tracking honey across the fine Indian rug. And the whole movie is shot in dull grays and blues. The countryside is British-ly foggy and gloomy. That’s probably accurate. But it’s less fun.
‘The Tao of Pooh’
We’ve all seen that book by now. I’ve never read it. But the things that come out of Pooh Bear’s mouth throughout the film were quite enlightening; I found myself often saying, “Ah, so that’s why they call it ‘The Tao of Pooh.’”
In the end, Christopher Robin learns to let go of his attachments to too much planning, living in the future, and having his mind constantly preoccupied by everything. Healthy humans, and especially children, need more nothingness. And emptiness.
Because it is in nothingness that inspiration and the imagination live. Kids today need simplicity. Nature. Quiet. The ability to do no intentional thing. To lie fallow. For it is in silence and in play that we learn to hear the universal paradoxes, the Taoist yin-yang underpinnings of existence.
As Pooh himself says: “Doing nothing often leads to the best kind of something.”
Also: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
And lastly: “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.”
I’m giving this 3.5 children stars, which translates to about 1.5 parent stars.
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Oliver Ford Davies
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 3
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5