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CHRISTOPHER ROBIN: SWEET AS HONEY

The word “charm” doesn’t apply to very many movies these days, but it’s precisely that quality—and an avoidance of treacly sentiment—that makes the new Disney feature Christopher Robin so enjoyable. Director Marc Forster, who piloted Finding Neverland–another story about a famous author (James M. Barrie) and his youthful creation, Peter Pan—strikes just the right note here. Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as the title character, a harried husband and father who must learn to embrace his inner child again in order to find happiness.

The characters who brought him such pleasure when he was a boy are the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood: Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo. The unfiltered directness of their emotions offer simple truths that could solve adult Christopher’s problems if he would only let them.

Winnie the Pooh and his friends are familiar to generations of grownups and kids, even if they haven’t read the original stories by A.A. Milne or seen the pen-and-ink illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Walt Disney first brought the characters to life in a faithful 1966 animated featurette and they have been part of the Disney family ever since.

This being the 21st century, the characters are no longer cartoons but presented as three-dimensional stuffed animals using CGI. I’ll admit I was resistant to this notion but the movie won me over in the end. Animation supervisor Michael Eames and his team create expressive figures who seem genuine and never lose their identity as toys.

The story was years in development and has three official screenwriters of note (Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder) and two others credited for story (Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson). But it’s the tone of the film that matters most. It has lighthearted moments and plenty of laughs but also conveys the importance of retaining a childlike imagination in order to ward off the slings and arrows of grownup life.

I’m sure there are some who will compare this feature to Paddington and Paddington 2, which also  have serious underpinnings but rely much more on slapstick and fast-paced action. I enjoyed both of those films, but I see no reason why they can’t coexist with a gentler brand of whimsy.

Ewan McGregor has played this kind of character before, notably in the underrated Miss Potter, and has the ability to project innocence and sincerity without an ounce of irony. He is supported by a first-rate cast including Hayley Atwell and young Bronte Carmichael, and a fine voice cast featuring Brad Garrett as Eeyore, Nick Mohammed as Piglet, Peter Capaldi as Rabbit, Toby Jones as Owl, Sara Sheen as Roo, Sophie Okonedo as Kanga, and the versatile Jim Cummings as both Tigger and Winnie the Pooh. (Cummings inherited the role from the late Sterling Holloway but over thirty years’ time has made it his own. His readings as Pooh in this film are masterful.)

One facet of the film that provides comfort (and joy) are the familiar Pooh songs written by the Sherman Brothers decades ago. Even better, there are three new songs contributed by 90-year-old Richard M. Sherman, who delivers one of them onscreen during the closing credits—a lovely homage that rounds out this engaging film.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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