The live-action "family movie" has become an especially elusive commodity, especially now that every member has distinct programming options on a variety of screens. Disney largely threads that needle with "Christopher Robin," a movie that -- once it gets going -- should entertain kids with the antics of Winnie the Pooh and company, while for parents squiring them, spending time with that beloved, silly old bear is no bother at all.
Director Marc Forster has an eclectic resume -- including a Bond movie and "World War Z" -- but the key entry for these purposes is "Finding Neverland," his moving 2004 look at Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie.
Throw in a spoonful of "Mary Poppins" for good measure, and you have "Christopher Robin," which doesn't rise to that level. Yet as with that earlier movie, the universal plot is all about an adult accessing his inner child, having lost touch with that pure, unadulterated side of himself.
Introduced as a lad cavorting with his plush pals, Christopher is quickly shown getting shipped off to boarding school, growing up into Ewan McGregor and getting married (Hayley Atwell plays his wife, making the most of a relatively small role).
Now, however, he's got adult-sized responsibilities, which include finding time for his own daughter. Having survived World War II, he's working for a large luggage company, but thanks to his officious boss (Mark Gatiss), faces arduous hours and the unsettling prospect of slashing jobs to make ends meet.
Christopher doesn't pray for guidance, but it nevertheless comes -- along with a reminder about what's truly important -- when Pooh (voiced, as in his animated likeness, by Jim Cummings), stumbles back into his life. And while he remains a "bear of very little brain," he's prone to saying some rather profound things -- at least, when he can get his mind off his rumbly tummy long enough to do so.
Christopher Robin is also reintroduced to the rest of the gang, including Eeyore (Brad Garrett, receiving most of the best lines), Tigger (also Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed) and Rabbit (Peter Capaldi).
A.A. Milne's creation is among the most durable of children's literary characters for a reason, and has already produced one fine movie in the last nine months, the biographical "Goodbye Christopher Robin."
That film was obviously a lot darker than this one, and the latest movie gets off to a somewhat slow start before the plot kicks into gear. As a result, younger kids might grow a bit fidgety while the story (conjured by multiple writers) establishes the groundwork for Christopher's plight.
Gradually, though, "Christopher Robin" settles in, exhibiting a genuine sweetness without becoming saccharine -- again, no small feat. Give much of the credit to McGregor in the thankless task of playing opposite his adorably furry co-stars, ably handling the comedy derived from the fact that he doesn't dare let others see them.
In one of their languid early moments, Pooh muses about those signature do-nothing days in the Hundred Acre Wood, "I would've liked it to go on for a while longer."
Frankly, "Christopher Robin" would be stretching things if it tried to prolong this relatively slim premise for one more minute. But as is, the movie mostly works-- a fleeting reminder of the simple pleasures of hanging out with family and a talking bear, which, in these frenetic times, is the kind of silliness that's worth savoring.
"Christopher Robin" premieres Aug. 3 in the U.S. It's rated PG.
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