When director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace, World War Z) decided – with some prompting from his young daughter, who wanted to him to make a film that was age-appropriate for her – to set his next story in The Hundred Acre Wood made famous by Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne and popularized for generations by the cartoons made by the Disney studio, he quickly settled on a brand-new way into the landscape made so familiar in so many people’s childhoods.
“For me, it was creating an original story while also introducing Pooh to a whole new generation who isn't familiar with Pooh,” he says of his new film Christopher Robin, which follows a now-adult version of Pooh’s real-boy best friend (Ewan McGregor), who’s driven to distraction by the demands of his job and is feeling increasingly disconnected from his wife (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter (Bonnie Carmichael). And one of the things Forster wanted to lean into, against the backdrop of what Christopher Robin needs to discover about his life, is that his oldest friends – his toys and animal comrades – were exactly as he remembered them.
“Usually in the movie, you know, all the characters change. They go through a metamorphosis – you have a character change,” says Forster. “Pooh and the gang stays the same. Nobody changes, because the person who does change is Christopher Robin.”
This much of the heavy lifting came in the design of the now iconic inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood – transforming them into CG-rendered characters that captured all of the best elements of the very enduring ways they’ve been interpreted, including the 1920s-era original book illustrations by British artist E.H. Shepherd and the colorful, simplistic animated designs from the Walt Disney shorts of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“The key was, for me, to really have these animals that feel used and been played with and hugged,” Forster says. “When I was a child, those characters were like a warm blanket. I felt really cozy, and they gave me sort of a safety net as a kid.” By now, Pooh had also evolved into a widely branded character for Disney, but Forster said the studio gave him a lot of latitude in redesigning the bear and his friends for Christopher Robin.
“I must say, in all, Disney has been a great partner – when I presented them the look they had really no notes,” he says. “I told them at the beginning, ‘I want to go back to Shepard's drawings from the 1920s and I also want to look at the first black-and-white drawings from the Disney cartoon character.’ I looked at both drawings, and had Michael Kushner, who did the character design, come and look at them. He designed them, we went back and forth, and then suddenly there was Pooh and I loved him. And it was very close to the original that ended up in them movie.”
“I presented it to the studio and they just loved it and everybody else did,” adds Forster. “I think Michael just understood the balance of what I was going for between the Shepard drawings and the early animation from Disney. And the key was it has to feel like a vintage Pooh. That you feel that wear and tear, that this boy hugged it and played with the bear. And the bear was created in the 1920s, the movie takes place in the late 1940s, so it was this 30-year span that felt very authentic.”
Also authentic was the very simple, sometimes unintentional wisdom espoused by the bear as he struggles to reconnect with his old friend, which felt very much like authentic Pooh to Atwell. “Pooh's a bit like a kind of a Zen master in that regard,” the actress says. “When I read the script it felt like that universal connection between your sense of what life was like when you were younger, where you actually had everything within you in terms of being able to connect with other human beings and cherishing those friendships and how important they were and being able to just do nothing – and in the doing of the nothing you had freedom, in a way.”
“That's always what Pooh's stories have been about, that kind of innocence,” she adds. “That children have an amazing ability to see the truth very easily and very gently, and that's kind of what Pooh does, in a way. It's kind of a nice reminder of that time.”
McGregor found it very easy to connect to the kind of freer and more innocent life that Christopher Robin’s come unmoored from. “I don't remember having an imaginary friend, although I spent a lot of time, like Christopher Robin did, as a child in the woods of the town that I come from in Scotland called Crieff,” he said. “It's surrounded by a woodland called the Knock. I spent most of my childhood in there with my mates. Literally, leave, say goodbye to our mom and dad in the morning and come back at night. We'd spend the whole day in there. I don't know what we did. I can't really remember but it was fantastic fun, anyway.”
“We just set out: ‘OK, we'll do this!’” the actor recalls. “Now I think doing nothing is very much about sitting on your couch and watching the TV. It's difficult for children now to escape all of the technology, because they're so drawn to it. It satisfies some part of the brain, which sadly seems to switch off the other part of the brain that wants to go out in the garden and play.”
Atwell remembers filling childhood afternoons imaginatively writing fan letter responses on behalf of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury as the imagined founders of his fan club, completely absorbed by the flight of fancy, much like Christopher Robin’s adventures with Pooh and his pals.
“It was a bit like a left-field game, but it never occurred to me,” Atwell laughs. “I think it's that beautiful moment when you're being a child until that point of self-consciousness comes in, where you're imagination is so free, without judgment, to kind of be good at it. There's no ego involved, or like, ‘Am I convincing, that I believe in that monster?’ You're just believing in the monster. There's a real magic in that. It's a very special sweet spot of life.”
That sweetness certainly seeped into the creative experience of making the movie, Atwell notes. “You can't really have a bad day when you're doing a Winnie the Pooh film,” she concedes. “I just felt that this is already a loved, inhabited world, that it's telling itself. Being a part of that, it didn't feel like a responsibility to try to live up to something. It just felt you're stepping into a world that's already there. It's already been loved and it knows what it's doing and what it needs to be and where it needs to go. We had a great old time.”
Disney's Christopher Robin is now in theaters.