WASHINGTON — Sometimes you go into a remake skeptically thinking “Why bother?” and exit so pleasantly surprised that you do your best impression of the honey bear, “Oh, bother.”
That’s what happened with “Christopher Robin,” Disney’s new live-action take on A.A. Milne’s 1926 children’s book and 1966 animated classic “Winnie-the-Pooh,” providing a charming companion piece to last year’s criminally underseen biopic “Goodbye Christopher Robin.”
While that film explored the “making of” story, like “Saving Mr. Banks” did for “Mary Poppins,” this film takes an imaginative dive into the fantasy world of Pooh. Here, an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) works hard selling luggage in his London boardroom. That is until one day he is paid a visit by his imaginary childhood friend, the stuffed bear Winnie-the-Pooh.
All of our favorite characters return from the Hundred Acre Wood. We get the bouncy tiger Tigger (Jim Cummings), a donkey named Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Kanga and Little Roo (Sophie Okonedo and Sara Sheen), there’s Rabbit (Peter Capaldi) and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) and there’s Owl (Toby Jones) — but most of all Winnie the Pooh (Cummings pulling double duty).
Cummings voices Pooh to perfection, sounding exactly like originator Sterling Holloway, who also voiced the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), Kaa the Snake in “The Jungle Book” (1967) and Roquefort in “The Aristocats” (1970). While Cummings is spot-on as Pooh, his Tigger voice pales in comparison to Paul Winchell, but at least Garrett nails the mopey Eeyore.
If you were an Eeyore-style cynic who thought that live-action creatures are “never gonna work,” you’ll be won over by the visual effects. Sure, it takes some getting used to seeing beloved cartoon characters as stuffed animals (i.e. “Paddington”), but I promise you’ll fall for them anew.
Parents will grin at the nostalgic callbacks, from “The Tigger Song” to Pooh’s “Up Down, Touch the Ground” stretches, while children will chuckle at the various new gags. Hats off to screenwriters Alex Ross Perry (“The Color Wheel”), Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) and Allison Schroeder (“Hidden Figures”) for delivering dialogue that is consistently chuckle-worthy, not to mention a particular waterfall sequence that makes laugh-out-loud use of slow disclosure.
Leading the charge is director Marc Forster, who’s shown impressive range from indie dramas (“Monster’s Ball”) to zombie flicks (“World War Z”). However, his most useful experience comes from directing Johnny Depp as “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” (2004), weaving in storybook elements like the animated pages of a chapter book flipping on screen.
Forster’s best choice was casting McGregor, who last year played Lumiere in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” (2017). It’s easy to see why he keeps getting cast; McGregor exudes charm across genres, from “Big Fish” fantasies to “Moulin Rouge!” musicals. Gone is the daring juvenile from “Trainspotting” and in his place is a seasoned talent who keeps getting better with age, inspiring Pooh to study his face and say, “I don’t see any cracks. Just wrinkles.”
McGregor is our grown-up vehicle for the film’s thematic lessons, a workaholic who evolves into a loving family man to his wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael). In a world where so many adults behave like blustering heffalumps, slimy woozles and cynical donkeys, it’s refreshing to see a family flick that reminds us of what’s truly important in life.
To quote Pooh’s recurring mantra in the movie: “Doing nothing often leads to the very best something,” which is another way of saying that sometimes you need to allow enough time in your life for coincidence to become inspiration. So take a step back, take a deep breath and focus on what really matters — family, friends and, occasionally, a giant pot of honey.