The Comfortable Nostalgia of Hook and Christopher Robin
“You can’t just take a teddy bear from a grown man.”
“‘Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.’
Pooh thought for a little.
‘How old shall I be then?’
‘I promise,’ he said.”
I don’t think there are many people who haven’t heard of the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan, and no doubt that that is in large part thanks to the Disney company.
Disney adapted both of these works into successful animated films that spawned multimedia franchises that are still, evidently, chugging along, inviting generation after generation of children to play in the Hundred Acre Wood and Never Land. This is not to say that everyone’s exposure to Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan are thanks to Disney, and it’s certainly not to say that Disney is the only company that’s had a go at revisiting these characters. But for properties so pervasive as these, and with so many generations knowing by name from the early twentieth century through the early twenty-first, the fact of the matter is that these nostalgia-driven pieces have made Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh integral to thousands of people’s growing up.
And now, in 2018, here we are again, another Winnie-the-Pooh installment under our belts from Disney, in the form of Christopher Robin, starring Ewan McGregor as the titular character, all grown up and jaded, in dire need of a little trip back to the childhood whimsy by way of the Hundred Acre Wood. What this film aims to tell us, assure us, is that it’s never too late to revisit and reclaim your childhood, and that it is, in fact something that we all must do. The games and friends and stories you loved as a child aren’t gone just because you’ve grown up, and in fact, they live on forever.
When I first saw the teaser trailer for this film back in March of 2018, I thought immediately of 1992’s Hook, which is not a Disney film, but which revisits the Peter Pan story in a very similar manner to Christopher Robin. The late Robin Williams plays Peter Banning, a grownup corporate lawyer, Hollywood’s shorthand for the antithesis of whimsy and fun and the exemplification of a workaholic father who needs to spend more time with his kids. In the context of the film, his business of mergers and acquisitions is declared to be the business of pirates (as Gramma Wendy puts it, “So Peter, you’ve become a pirate.”). He is closer to his mortal enemy, Captain Hook, because, the film posits, he has forgotten how to find the joy.
Early in the film, he takes a business call during his children’s school play, he makes promises about attending baseball games he will always miss, and, worst of all, he screams at his children for playing too noisily while he’s on a Very Important Phone Call, leading to an argument with his wife and a further rift between him and his son. It’s a scene reminiscent of the opening of Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), with Peter Banning playing the role of the angry Mr. Darling who eschews all sense of fun and seems to openly dislike his children (and the dog for that matter). Peter Banning doesn’t hate his children; they remind him of his questionable priorities and how quickly we forget that sense of fun as we age.
(Curiously enough, this film did start out with Disney, when it was originally going to be more of a remake of the 1953 animated film, but creative differences and production delays kicked it over to TriStar and Amblin Entertainment.)
Jim V. Hart, the original screenwriter of the film, shared an anecdote in an interview: “I realized that Peter did grow up, just like all of us baby boomers who are now in our forties. I patterned him after several of my friends on Wall Street, where the pirates wear three-piece suits and ride in limos.” It stands to reason that this film, released forty years after the Disney cartoon, would want to explore what happens when Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, does actually grow up, because his audience has grown up too.
When he loses that sense of childhood whimsy, steps out of his leafy green leotard and into a three-piece suit, is a part of him lost forever? Are we, the adults in the audience, to understand that? Can you, the filmmakers of this 90s family movie starring Robin Williams, assure us that our inner child is not dead and gone, and that Never Land isn’t closed to us forever?
The most crucial point made in this film was the balance our middle-aged protagonist struck between childhood sense of fun and owning your adult responsibilities. Peter does learn to be “the Pan” again, but leans a little too far in that direction at first, forgetting at the top of the third act that he still has a job to do here in Never Land. Peter has to be reminded by Tinkerbell of all people that he has a task set before him, that he is here to save his children, not just for fun and games, and in order to save his children, he needed a bit of fun and games. He can be a hero only when that balance is struck.
And so can we all, promises Steven Spielberg and Jim V. Hart. So can we all.
Disney’s bread and butter is nostalgia-driven fairytale, falling into a simpler time and place from when we were very young, from the beginning. Children respond to it because they are swept up in the fairytale; their parents, or, if you’re me, the young adults in the audience openly weeping into their popcorn buckets, respond because they are swept up in the fairytale in addition to being swept away to that time when they felt the safest, that time when all of the adults in their life told them repeatedly “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Well, here I am, a woman in my mid-twenties, weeping into my bucket of popcorn at an early-evening screening of Christopher Robin, and wondering at what point did I step over the line from understanding it’s all fun and games and following your heart to knowing with profound certainty that time whips past faster and faster the older you get, and there are Very Important Things we need to set out to accomplish before that time is over. And at what point will I finally learn the balance that Peter Banning and grown-up Christopher Robin, struck? Do I have to?
Yes, I have to.
A.A. Milne’s beloved character Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in the 1924 verse book When We Were Very Young, and in 1926, was included in his own text, Winnie-the-Pooh. Winnie-the-Pooh is a collection of many of his most famous stories, including “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place”, “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One”, and “In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water”. Many of the stories in this book, as well as the sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, were later adapted by the Walt Disney company into a theatrically released anthology The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) which in turn was a collection of previously released featurettes which were released beginning in the mid-1960s.
Christopher Robin opens with a goodbye party for the titular character the day before he heads off to boarding school. It begins with an ending, pulling directly from the final story in The House at Pooh Corner, “In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There,” which has itself been adapted at least twice already by Disney (Christopher Robin’s going away closes out The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and begins 1997’s Pooh’s Grand Adventure). “In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place” is definitively an ending, as Christopher Robin is going away and won’t come back to play to the Hundred Acre Wood, and the scenes immediately following the opening serve as a tragic epilogue of sorts to this story. The next few minutes of the film flip through chapters of Christopher’s life outside of the Hundred Acre Wood as he grows up, attends boarding school, loses his father, falls in love, has a child, goes to war, and comes back to take a job at a suitcase company, all neatly parceled out into chapters in the style of a Winnie-the-Pooh book.
The 2018 film is as much an homage to the original books as it is a continuation of the established Disney franchise. Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, and Roo are a delightful combination of the E.H. Shepard illustrations as well as the cartoons, and they are animated as stuffed animals (with the exception of Owl and Rabbit, a nice nod to A.A. Milne’s creations; Owl and Rabbit were the only characters not based on Christopher Robin’s toys and thus are styled more realistically).
As with Peter Banning in Hook, Christopher Robin is painfully “grownup”, in a child’s view of boring adult things. He avoids frivolity, though much less angrily. While Peter Banning shouted at his children in Hook, Christopher Robin merely shuts out his family, quite literally closing the door on his wife and daughter playing in the next room. He is much more resigned and tired, and befuddled at the idea that his daughter would want to hear stories at bedtime and draw pictures with him in the country.
The reasons for Christopher Robin’s quietude are more clearly defined: his father died at a young age and he is a World War II veteran, the latter of which resulted in him missing out on a significant chunk of his daughter’s childhood, not really getting to meet her until she was around four years old. As far as losses of innocence are concerned, fighting in a war is an assuredly terrible way to have one.
But here we are at the crux of the matter: once innocence is lost, can it be regained? Not necessarily, as like Hook, Christopher Robin does not require its main character to jump headfirst into nothing but whimsy and never look back. Instead, he must strike a balance, and by the end of the film, he uses his regained sense of fun and wonder to solve the adult problem put before him. In Hook, it was rescuing his children; in Christopher Robin, it was saving his failing suitcase company to rescue his employees and colleagues from unemployment.
The mission of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh in the early part of the movie is to find the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood crew, which are functionally pieces of Christopher Robin that he must pick back up if he is to solve his adult problem, though he doesn’t realize that they are the key to it all until the end, of course. As I previously mentioned, Christopher doesn’t yell at his daughter as Peter did, but he does yell at someone. As he picks his way through the foggy Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh, becoming more and more lost in large part due to Pooh’s inability to navigate and approach problems “systematically”, he snaps and begins shouting at him. As heartbreaking as it is to watch Peter shout at his kids in Hook, this scene in Christopher Robin resonates in that it’s essentially watching a frustrated man lash out at a part of himself that he’d buried, to say nothing of the fact that we are watching a very adorable part of our own childhoods being berated.
The simple wisdom of Winnie-the-Pooh that Christopher needs to accept is that occasionally, it can help to stop overthinking. To escape from your own head once in awhile, because “doing nothing often leads to the very best something.” This theme is quite obviously laid out by an earlier scene in which Pooh asks for a red balloon:
“You don’t need it.”
“But it makes me very happy.”
“There’s more to happiness than just balloons.”
Pooh is a bear of very little brain, but his folksy wisdom suggests that maybe it can actually be that simple. That if a red balloon makes you very happy, have a red balloon every now and again. Maybe somewhere along the course of our growing up, we forget, as everything becomes layered over and over with the complications of experience. The red balloon won’t solve everything, assuredly not, but it might brighten your gloomy day at least for a little bit of respite.
I opened this essay with one of my favorite quotes from A.A. Milne. It touches on a theme I find myself fixated on as I continue to age and look upon life with a morbid awareness of my own mortality, that being, forgetting. Forgetting childhood things, shedding childhood things. A few years ago, when Inside Out brought Bing-Bong the Imaginary Friend into our lives, I honestly can’t say whether the adults or children in the theater were sobbing louder when I saw it. But we all cried, albeit for slightly different reasons. The emotional response was equal. The logic behind it, less so. None of us wanted to see Bing-Bong disappear, but at least half of us had lived through the lesson that he has to disappear.
“You’ll understand when you’re older.” But pause for a moment and think, think, think: the children in the audience do understand so much more than we adults can remember understanding, and when we adults were very young, we understood too. They know the deeply held truth, know it intrinsically in their hearts, so fervently that they look at their parents and wonder “Did they lose a part of themselves when they grew up? And will I have to too?” It’s the parents watching the family film that want, that may need, to be reminded of the truth their children haven’t yet forgotten, that sense of childhood innocence, of kindness and love and, well, fun. And to know that, it isn’t lost. It can’t be lost, only forgotten for a bit.
At the beginning of the summer, I went on a road trip with my mother to a rural part of the country. It was a time to talk, reconnect, be dorky tourists like we were on family trips when I was a kid.
One of the days, we stopped at a Very Old bridge built over a stream. While oohing and ahhing over the craftsmanship of the two-hundred-year-old bridge, my mother picked up a stick from the ground and looked at me mischievously.
“Do you want to play?” she asked.
And after a bit of protesting, I chose a stick I thought might beat hers, and we leaned over the edge of the bridge, counted to three, dropped them into the stream, and then sprinted to the other side of the bridge to see whose won the race.
It’s a game called Poohsticks, from 1928’s The House at Pooh Corner, and I must admit that the moment I picked my stick off the ground, I felt a surge of contentment and wistfulness through to my fingertips. I thought of all the times we played when I was a child, all of the times I used to pick better than my younger brother, until he learned the slightly heavier sticks usually won. All the times we wore out our videotapes of Pooh’s Grand Adventure and The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, and flipped through much-used copies of The House at Pooh Corner. I thought of my first dance recital, when afterwards my grandmother said she was proud of me, and she gave me a little music box of Piglet and Pooh splashing in the rain, sculpted in the original style of E.H. Shepard’s illustrations. And I thought of how excited I was, in March of 2018, to learn they were making a new Winnie-the-Pooh movie, à la Hook, and how it felt to know that, why yes, I am the target audience for this, because, really, aren’t we all?
(My stick won, by the way.)
Yes, here we are in 2018, another Winnie-the-Pooh installment under our belts. Ninety-four years after the creation of this beloved character, nearly four generations of children have grown up with this silly old bear. My mother was a child when the first Disney featurette was released, and she too was a voracious reader quite familiar with the A.A. Milne stories. She played Poohsticks when she was very young, and a generation later, my brother and I did too.
Things like Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh make me cry into my popcorn bucket because they connect me back to my childhood. My confusing, bumbling childhood where everything was big and scary, but warm and comforting too. Where I wrapped myself up in the moment I realized this was it, and time was going to move faster the more I grew up.
Some people say when you grow older, you close your heart to childish things. But I don’t believe that’s true. There are times when it may sleep, so soundly it seems it has quieted for good. But it’s still alive, it’s still there. You need only wake it up:
“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
— A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner