Steven S. Drachman on Disney Christopher Robin: You Heard It Here First

This is a review of a movie I haven’t seen, and which I expect I won’t see. Is that unfair? I don’t think so.

Remember the Winnie-the-Pooh books, in which a young boy and his father imagine various low-key and humorous adventures in the woods adjoining their country home, featuring the boy’s stuffed animals come to life? The original books celebrated the joy of childhood – a ridiculous belief in ridiculous things, unfettered imagination – and a parent’s appropriately distant amusement at such nonsense. But in the final scene of the last slim book, the days of childish silliness inevitably end. Christopher Robin says goodbye to Pooh and promises never to forget him, a melancholic scene that even Disney included in their cartoon version.

Christopher Robin’s young voice is vivid in the books, yet the real Christopher Milne decisively and quite reasonably abandoned his childhood friends, as well he should; he gave away the stuffed animals, he sold the rights to the stories, and he chose to live his adult life without the distraction of his childhood. Back in the 1980s, writing in Release Magazine — a magazine so obscure, no reference to it exists today anywhere on the internet — I raised some objections to the virulence of his hostility towards what he called “my wretched teddy bear.” But I don’t feel that way anymore. He never said that I shouldn’t enjoy his father’s books; indeed, he asked that we put his own memoir on our shelves beside his father’s stories. Rather, he thought that no seventy-year-old man ought to be bothered to think about stuffed animals he had given away decades ago.

The real Christopher Robin Milne grew up, fought in World War II, married a woman named Lesley (pictured, with Milne), opened a successful bookstore and devoted himself selflessly to the care of his daughter, Clare, who had cerebral palsy. (Clare Milne died in 2012 at the age of 56, and left the money from the Pooh books to various local charities.) I like to think that his flights of childhood whimsy, and the days spent on his father’s knee, contributed to the admirable adult that he became. Maybe so; maybe not. It doesn’t matter.

Now comes the Disney film version of Christopher Robin’s life as an adult. Apparently, the full name of the film is Disney Christopher Robin, which is appropriate. It’s not about Christopher Robin Milne. It’s not about Christopher Robin. It’s about “Disney Christopher Robin,” which is something different.

In the film, according to IMDB, his first name is Christopher and his last name is Robin. Because this is Disney Christopher Robin. His wife is named Evelyn Robin, and they have a daughter named Madeline Robin, who seems to be free of any illness. Because Disney Christopher Robin has a different wife and daughter from real Christopher Robin. Disney Christopher Robin is an overworked executive at some inhumane corporation, he does not work at his own bookstore. Unlike the real Christopher Milne, he does not dote on his daughter; instead, he spends too much time at the office, and his family never sees him. When he has to cancel a family vacation because of an emergency at work, the entire gang from the Thousand Acre Wood returns to help him, and the adult Christopher Robin engages merrily in various childish, stuffed-animal antics, which I gather will have their intended effect. I expect he will tell his boss what is important in life, and he will go on that vacation.

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The stuffed animals in the film do not look like Ernest Shepard’s illustrations nor like the real toys displayed in the New York Public Library; they are the Disney cartoon versions, come to computer-generated life. It is particularly jarring to see this Christopher Robin meet Tigger; the real Tigger was a baby tiger, and Shepard drew him as a rambunctious toddler. Disney imagined him as a glad-handing, big-talking but weirdly childish adult, someone who might have hung around a Midwest pool hall in 1954, losing money, drinking too much and drunkenly, slurringly calling everyone, “ole buddy ole pal.” But Disney Christopher Robin played with Disney Tigger. So Disney’s vision, the childish adult, wins out over Milne and Shepard’s vision, the childish child.

There’s nothing wrong with inventing fictional adventures for real historical figures. Plenty of writers do this, from E.L. Doctorow to George MacDonald Fraser. I even do this in my own writing; in my Watt O’Hugh books, various real 19th century figures march through the pages. But the stories that we writers of fictionalized history tell are often historically true, and where they are wholly invented, they never contradict the facts. We don’t tinker with our historical characters this way; we don’t change their families, give them different jobs. George Washington was not a girl in California, and the boy who played with Edward Bear and invented the moniker “Winnie-the-Pooh” was named Christopher Robin Milne, he grew up and opened a bookstore, he married a woman named Lesley, and he had a daughter with cerebral palsy who was named Clare (pictured at right). There is simply no such thing as “Disney Christopher Robin.” There is truth and there are lies. Unfortunately, if history is any indication, a sizable part of the world will just believe the lies.

But why exactly do our totalitarian overlords at Disney need to tell us this lie about the life of a real man? It is because the real Christopher Robin was not a Disneyesque creature at all; he did not believe in eternal childhood and eternal childishness. He grew up. And even though he was an adult and had left his childhood behind, he was devoted to his daughter and his family, and was generally a decent and kind fellow. Disney has its own version of history that it wants its people to believe, and it has a platform to spread its self-aggrandizing lies; so did Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

Should Disney not spread the message that a parent must himself play with stuffed animals and relate to his children as though he is still a child himself? Disney may spread any message it wants, of course, and that particular message helps drive the adult audience for its theme parks and merchandise for movies like Frozen and their Broadway spinoffs. Adults who want to behave like children, watch children’s movies and read children’s books drive Disney’s market share. But don’t pretend that this is the moral of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh or Christopher Robin’s life, because the truth is in fact the opposite. I’m not telling Disney to stop selling its pro-childishness vision; I’m just positing that truth has some value. To quote the over-quoted Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you have a right to your opinion, but not to your own facts.

This all reminds me of a prior cinematic disaster, Steven Spielberg’s Hook. The concept of the character Peter Pan is pretty simple, and usually misunderstood. “All children, except one, grow up,” author J.M. Barrie wrote. That’s it; Peter doesn’t grow up. Peter is a vivid character, but his character comes from this one essential trait. Barrie isn’t saying, however, that we should never grow up. In Barrie’s view, childhood is a time of unbridled selfishness. “[C]hildren are gay and innocent and heartless,” Barrie writes, in the novel’s last line. Only the heartless can fly, the author tells us. They love only themselves. Peter is childishly heroic, but he also abandons his own mother and cannot be bothered to shed a tear when Tinkerbell dies, nor even remember her with anything more than an apathetic shrug years after her death. “There are such a lot of them,” Peter says, when Wendy asks about Peter’s best friend. “I expect she is no more.” He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care. That is what happens when you never grow up.

Yet for Hook, Spielberg imagined that the boy who loves only himself and never grows up … falls in love and decides to grow up and get married. He becomes a lawyer who spends too much time at the office, not enough with his kids. Of course, only a trip to Neverland, and his own childhood, will cure this. (In Neverland, both Captain Hook and Tinkerbell still live, in spite of having died years earlier in Barrie’s opus.) Peter returns to the real world a much better dad, which I gather means that he would not file a court brief for his client if it means being late for his kid’s ballgame. (Because a child’s priorities are the right priorities, bankruptcy and professional failure be damned.)

Before casting Robin Williams in this horrible film, Steven Spielberg tried to sign Michael Jackson to the role of the adult Peter Pan. Jackson after all was the original childlike adult, someone who really lived the message of Hook, and who prefigured the message of Disney Christopher Robin. He was Disney’s perfect grownup.

[UPDATE: I will update this column if any of my sight-unseen objections turn out to have been unfair.]

[UPDATE, November 29, 2018: The movie made around $200M at the U.S. box office, it has a 95% favorable rating among moviegoers (see right), and it even got some really good reviews among critics. But I stand by my objection. He was a real man, with a real life and real opinions, and he deserves to be remembered for some approximation of who he really was. Truth matters, and so does not lying; this movie is  not just fiction, it is a lie (albeit, apparently, a very entertaining one).]

Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is published by Chickadee Prince Books. The drawing of Pooh illustrated his column about Christopher Robin that appeared in Release Magazine sometime in the late 1980s or in early 1990. If it is yours, let us know.