Film Review: Christopher Robin

As a kid I used to have a copy of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh on VHS that was watched frequently and much loved by my sisters and I. I’ve read bits and pieces of A.A. Milne’s stories, but for me the Pooh I know and love is the Disney one. This movie draws on both sources to craft a sweet, if cheesy, story about perspective and the importance of remaining young at heart.

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Ewan McGregor plays the grown up Christopher Robin, who is trapped in a life of office drudgery and needs to cut his department’s costs by 20% and explain how at a big meeting. Due to the meeting he cancels plans for a weekend in the countryside with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), which doesn’t go over well, especially as Madeline is soon to be packed off to boarding school.

Back into his life comes Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), who seeks him out when he loses the rest of his friends. While CR initially thinks he is cracking under the stress he agrees to take Pooh back to the Hundred Acre Wood, although he struggles with the silly old bear.

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But as time progresses he begins to recover the childlike joy of the world he created, and has fun for the first time. Unfortunately the real world soon calls and he departs once more, leaving behind important papers.

Pooh and friends set off to return the papers and encounter Madeline, who joins them in their expedition, and runs off.

Will Pooh get the papers to CR in time? Will CR realise there are more important things in life than work? Will Madeline have to go to the boarding school she’s not fussed on?

You can probably guess the answers to these questions, as plot wise this doesn’t have many surprises, but it doesn’t need to as it’s a solidly told tale. Helping it out are the familiar and lovable characters, alongside a solid performance from McGregor who captures the quiet frustration and emotional distance of Christopher Robin in the early stages, as well as nailing the childlike joy and humour he rediscovers.

It’s wonderfully heartwarming and filled with some funny moments and entertaining sequences. The CGI rendered toys are all delightful, especially Tigger (also voiced by Cummings) and the wonderfully downbeat Eeyore (Brad Garrett).

Unfortunately for much of the cast they don’t get much to do. Bronte Carmichael impresses as Madeline, showing spirit and humour as she joins in the adventures.  But Hayley Atwell is underused as Evelyn, which is a pity as she has natural on screen charisma that goes unused.

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Some people might regard it as schmaltzy, but I found some parts genuinely affecting and sweetly charming. The idea of reclaiming youthful joy is hardly a new story but it’s well executed, and using the residents of Hundred Acre Wood ensures that the audience feel the same nostalgia and affection that Christopher Robin experiences.

Verdict: There are cheesy moments, but the movie has genuine heart and McGregor excels as the eponymous character. The CGI characters outperform many of the living actors, and the story is predictable, but it still works as an entertaining and warmhearted tale. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Film Review: Beauty and the Beast

I have mixed feelings about the current trend Disney have for live action remakes of their animated movies. While The Jungle Book worked for me, I was less fussed on Cinderella and Maleficent, and the fact that a live action Dumbo is on the way fills me with dread, although as I am soon to marry a Disney addict I have resigned myself to my fate. Taking on one of the studios best efforts was a big gamble, but thankfully this one pays off.

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The story is simple enough, a vain and selfish Prince (Dan Stevens) refuses to help an old woman shelter from the rain but it turns out she is actually a powerful enchantress. She curses him by turning him into a beast, and he will remain a monster until he learns to love and wins the love of another. The enchantress also curses all the residents of the castle turning them into objects related to their jobs, which seems a bit harsh and if the Beast doesn’t succeed in finding a love before the last petal falls from a magic rose they will become inanimate objects for good and he will remain a beast for ever.

Years later we meet Belle (Emma Watson), an intelligent and free spirited young woman who lives in the nearest town. The locals aren’t too sure about her, regarding her love of reading and individuality as peculiar, nonetheless her beauty has caught the attention of Gaston (Luke Evans), the local hero who is a vain, self centred braggart. She spurns his advances and dreams of there being more to life. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is a maker of clockwork machines and leaves to sell them at market, however, on the road back he is waylaid and finds a mysterious, crumbling castle. He attempts to take a rose for his daughter but is imprisoned.

Belle sets off to find him, and arrives at the castle, where concerned for her father’s health she volunteers to take his place. Maurice’s claims are dismissed in town, although Gaston sees an opportunity to exploit the situation.

Meanwhile, at the castle Belle befriends the Beast’s cursed servants and slowly begins to discover there is more to the Beast. Similarly, her presence serves to quell his anger and he begins to care for his hostage. Their relationship, encouraged by the servants strengthens but Belle misses her father and when she becomes aware of his troubles is upset. The Beast allows her to leave.

Will Belle be able to save her father? Will she return to the castle? What will Gaston do when he discovers the existence of the beast? And will the curse ever be broken?

This remake works for same reasons that the updated version of The Jungle Book did, by honouring the original through the use of certain aspects, but by giving characters a different spin and adding new touches. Characters like Maurice, Gaston and his sidekick La Fou (Josh Gad) are given more background and are slightly more complex.

Maurice is the best example, with Kevin Kline moving away from the clownish, mad-inventor of the animated version to create a sadder figure. Belle’s mother is long deceased at the start and his grief is evident throughout, and the backstory adds more emotion to the tale. Also, his character here rings truer with the clever, independent young woman he has raised.

But despite this the main strength is the magical, charming romance at the centre and here credit goes to the leads. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, and does a great job of making her a likeable, strong character. Belle is a great heroine, free thinking and brave, she nobly sacrifices herself for her father and faces the Beast fearlessly. Throughout she shows strength, intelligence and kindness.

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Belle: A great heroine

She handles the singing wonderfully, and is utterly charming throughout. Similarly Dan Stevens’ vocal work as the beautifully realised Beast is expressive enough for it to work, conveying the feelings that develop between them.

The central romance unfolds at a decent pace, and the film benefits from giving the Beast more backstory beyond that he was just a bit of a wanker. It also explains why the rest of the castle don’t hate him, feeling partly responsible for failing in to raise him to be a good man.

One thing the film does well is quickly cover up some of the plot holes from the original, like the fact that the town seem oblivious to the giant castle mere miles away, with the enchantress having cast a spell for them to forget all about it and the people are there. This also means there is a nice touch of when the mob storms the castle some feel deja vu and one of the villagers always has a sense of having lost something, it being revealed it is the loved ones he had at the castle…

These changes are well done and mostly serve to make the film play better as a live action piece as a straight adaptation might have suffered in translation. But there are plenty of moments that are retained, notably in costume and music. The ballroom scene in the original is an iconic scene and was groundbreaking for the time, and it helps that the castle is just as beautiful here and that the dance scene is one of the most moving moments in the film. The song remains an absolute wonder, and the scene is magical, prompting one small child in the cinema to actually cheer and applaud at the end.

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Other scenes are translated to varying degrees of success, the swagger of “Gaston” is a standout here, especially as fresh jokes are added and Josh Gad is brilliant as Le Fou. Luke Evans as well impresses, capturing the strutting, arrogant character wonderfully even though he isn’t roughly the size of a barge. While Evans is reliable as ever, I left the film suspecting that Dwayne Johnson would have been brilliant for the part, especially if he channeled the charismatic arrogance of his wrestling days.

However, for me “Be Our Guest” didn’t match the original, and Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere wasn’t half as charming as Jerry Orbach’s and the character design for him and Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth were made a bit too “realistic” and a lot less endearing or friendly looking than their animated counterparts.

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The old ones were a lot friendlier looking, I’m just saying

Similarly Mrs Potts isn’t quite as cute as her old self, but is voiced by the ever excellent Emma Thompson, who takes over from Angela Lansbury and does a stellar job.

But these are minor quibbles and the movie does well in bringing new things to the table. There is a new musical number, performed by the Beast that is genuinely moving and as I mentioned earlier the characters and some story aspects are changed. The fact that the servants are becoming increasingly inanimate is a heartbreaking touch, with them all moving towards losing their humanity. In fact a sequence where they are transformed is an emotional gut punch that had my eyes a little watery.

Before it’s release a lot was made of the fact that Le Fou was being turned into a gay character. The fact is that Josh Gad’s character is far more complicated than the original and his sexuality is only a part of that. Le Fou is loyal and clearly in love with Gaston, but it is suggested that the two have been together a long time, having served together in an unspecified war. Le Fou’s admiration for his friend is clear, but what is a nice addition is the fact that he is not just a dimwit who goes along with everything. His conscience starts to peak through, and there are moments when he acts as a calming, soothing presence for Gaston, staying his hand.

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Le Fou tries to calm Gaston

As Gaston’s obsession with Belle grows and he reveals his true, selfish nature Le Fou realises he has made a mistake and tries to make it right. It’s nice that a secondary character, largely a buffoon is given a bit more depth and Gad is consistently amusing.

All in all this is a very successful film which tells a familiar story in an utterly charming way, beautiful to look at and entirely engaging. I was sucked in early on and utterly captivated, in much the way that six year old Chris was back in 1992. In fact, I’d say this packs more of an emotional punch than the original.

It’s a delight from start to finish, with the familiar and the new combining to make a film which is great in it’s own right. MWF loved it as well, so hardcore Disney fans can rest assured that it doesn’t let the house of mouse down.

Verdict: A wonderful, magical experience which uses the animated version as a jumping off point to go in new directions and add greater depth. Moving, amusing and utterly, marvelously charming. 8.5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.