"It's Nostalgia!" Christopher Robin and the problem with Disney's live-action reboots
Before my opening night screening of Disney’s newest live-action reimagining, Christopher Robin, two trailers catch the audience’s attention. They play as a bit of a game for the crowd: guess that movie. As Colin Farrell looks under a pile of hay to find a small, floppy-eared elephant, a woman in my audience whispers, “It’s Dumbo!” The trailer proceeds with shots of famous people like Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito looking up in amazement. The gist: “It’s Dumbo!”
The next trailer opens on a familiar street, and the audience whispers start as a dingy kite flies past the amazed face of Lin-Manuel Miranda. When Emily Blunt finally flies in on an umbrella, the man in front of me pumps his fist high in the air and tells his friends, “I guessed it!” On screen, Ben Whishaw says the only dialogue in the teaser, “Mary Poppins! It is wonderful to see you.” Cool.
Then, the movie starts. It’s sweet, if mundane and instantly forgettable, in the classic tradition of magic dad movies (where something magic happens to an overworked father to remind him the wonders of spending time with his children). Ewan McGregor is charming as Christopher Robin, though his character is exceptionally generic. He works too much, but he’s a good man trying to cut costs without laying off his employees like his boss (Mark Gatiss) suggests. Because it’s Disney, or perhaps because he’s Christopher Robin, he doesn’t get to be as terrible as, say, Jim Carrey’s magic dad in Liar Liar. His wife is sufficiently played by the excellent Hayley Atwell who, per usual for women in this kind of movie, doesn’t get nearly enough screen time or development. The effects are impressive, and Eeyore (Brad Garrett) is hilarious. Despite the merits of this very fine film, it is ultimately an hour and forty-four minutes of a teddy bear calling for “Christopher Robin,” and Ewan McGregor shouting, “Pooh!” The name game is getting old. Why don’t I just watch The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)?
If Christopher Robin didn’t have the recognizable Pooh, it would almost certainly be worse. Bob Iger made a sound business decision to focus on mining nostalgia for dollars from Star Wars, Marvel, and the classic Disney vault. The only division making true original content is animation, but even Disney Animation and Pixar pump out a sequel every year. At Disney, the complaints of your uncle are true: everything really is a sequel or reboot. That’s not my problem. I just don’t understand why they have to be bad.
Some of my favorite films are based on pre-existing properties and sometimes even manage to eclipse the original. Ocean’s 11 (2001) is a remake of the Rat Pack movie from 1960, yet it defines the series. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) is the best Terminator film. How often do you forget that Mission: Impossible (1996) is based on a forgotten television series of the same name? I see a movie based on something significantly more often than wholly original movies because I like what they’re based on. That doesn’t mean I walk in expecting the movie to be fine enough. I just want it to be... good.
Another talking bear film from this year proves being straight-up good is possible. Paddington 2 is one of the best films this year. It won’t matter if you’re a lifelong fan of the marmalade-loving bear or if this is your first Paddington adventure. It’s just a good movie. The BAFTA-nominated screenplay is airtight, the movie is sure of itself, specific, and a joy to watch. Christopher Robin, on the other hand, simply cloys at your affection for a bear who says quotes that will soon be attached to a minion on your grandmother’s Facebook.
Despite being wildly successful, most of the Disney live-action reimaginings suffer similar problems. Cinderella (2015) is forgettable, Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) are too much, and Maleficent (2014) is a bad idea. When I saw Beauty and the Beast (2017) the crowd was excited, but it seemed like we just wanted to re-experience the Oscar-nominated animated masterpiece. Instead, we sat through the new song, “Evermore,” a terrible failed attempt to snag a Best Original Song nomination.
Maybe I’m asking too much, though. The movie I just said was a slog was one of the highest grossing films of last year. People like seeing these movies. I never want to be the one saying people like things for the wrong reasons, but maybe this time it’s merited? It’s hard not to worry these films only serve a desire to go back to something we love, without delivering the good movies we deserve. If that’s the issue, the content is already there, just waiting to satisfy (barely anyone saw 2011’s delightful Winnie The Pooh). We shouldn’t be complacent with a facsimile of what we loved before. Disney should give us the goods.
And sometimes they have. In 2016, Disney put out The Jungle Book, an innovative box office smash. The story was solid, and the photoreal animals Jon Favreau and his team created were undeniably stunning. Pete’s Dragon came out that same year and was exceptional. Disney enlisted experimental indie director David Lowery (A Ghost Story) to make a lovely film that owes more to E.T. than its source material. Unfortunately, most people didn’t buy a ticket. Probably because the Pete’s Dragon cinematic universe doesn't have a strong brand.
But if people aren’t going to see movies based on weak IP, we can still demand more from the inevitable hits. I so badly want them to be good. Mary Poppins Returns is an original musical with music from Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray). Dumbo (2019) is Tim Burton not working with a dark color palette or Johnny Depp. And The Lion King (2019) brings back Jon Favreau to work with an incredible cast. This is stuff to get excited about! I always want to see more of the things I love, but just recognizing them on screen isn’t enough. Give me something new. More importantly, give me something good.