Forster is known for dark brooding films. He tells 'The National' about bringing wistful melancholy to the tale of ‘Christopher Robin’
Director Marc Forster on the parental guidance provided by Winnie the Pooh
Marc Forster can thank his daughter for his latest film. The director behind zombie thriller World War Z, 007 movie Quantum of Solace and hard-hitting drama Monster’s Ball doesn’t exactly have a track record when it comes to entertaining children. One day, he says his daughter asked him, “Can you make a movie for me? I can’t watch any of your movies, they are too dark.” An avid fan of Winnie-the-Pooh, she suggested Forster take on AA Milne’s beloved bear.
Forster was intrigued, but he didn’t simply want to make a Pooh cartoon; Disney has been doing that for years with a string of features, direct-to-video films and TV series. Instead, he conjured up the idea of Christopher Robin – the first part-live-action Pooh film, featuring actors alongside computer-rendered animals. Moreover, this was going to be a film for everyone. He told his daughter, then six, “If I make a movie for kids about Pooh, I want to make the movie for you, for me and my mum.”
The character of the honey-loving bear has been a staple of children’s literature since Milne first published Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, with illustrations by Ernest Shepard bringing the character to life. But adults have since explored Milne’s work: Benjamin Hoff’s book The Tao of Pooh used the characters to examine the basic tenets of Taoism. Pooh’s philosophies – phrases like “weeds are flowers, too, if you get to know them”, Forster says “are childish, but they have a lot of depth to them, too”.
It could well be why Christopher Robin has been written by a trio of screenwriters with more experience in the adult arena: Tom McCarthy (writer-director of the Oscar-winning Spotlight); Allison Schroeder (Oscar-nominated for Hidden Figures) and Alex Ross Perry (writer-director of Listen Up Philip). Forster went into the project with ambitions to deliver a family film that can be enjoyed on numerous emotional levels.
“There are all these classic Disney movies I remember from my childhood,” he says. “Some of them are quite dark, quite disturbing, but they’re for the whole family. They’re not just purely for kids. And I feel like today we say, ‘This is just a kids’ movie, this is just an adults’ movie.’ It’s so genre-specific. But there are very few movies that everyone can watch together and enjoy.”
Like the recent Paddington films, which bring to life that other great British bear of children’s literature, Forster’s film plugs adults back into their childhood. Here, Christopher Robin – the boy who meets Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the other creatures in the (fictional) Hundred Acre Wood – is now a grown-up. Played by Ewan McGregor, he works as a harassed manager in a luggage factory in 1940s London and barely has time for wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) or daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).
“I thought it was beautiful, the idea,” says Jim Cummings, the American actor who has voiced Pooh for the past 30 years across all the Disney cartoons and who returns here. “To put it plainly: what if Christopher Robin grew up and ended up like the rest of us? He’s Mr nine to five, punching the timecard. He has all the trials and tribulations that greet life once one exits the Hundred Acre Wood. He saved us [Pooh, Eeyore and the gang]. It was the least we could do to return the favour.”
Through a little bit of magic, Pooh journeys through a portal in the Hundred Acre Wood and arrives in London, where he reunites with Christopher Robin. While Pooh is on a quest to find his missing friends, he’s really there to help Christopher Robin re-connect with his inner child in an all-too serious world. “[As adults] we almost deny ourselves play,” says Forster. “But ultimately that’s the most fun about life – to play and spend time with people you enjoy.”
The last Milne book finished with Christopher Robin – based, of course, on his own son – heading off to boarding school. Forster’s film starts with these pages before swiftly accelerating the character to adulthood. The tone is more wistful and melancholic. “From day one, we knew it was going to be less bombastic,” says Cummings. “Pooh was not going to be aloft in a weather balloon. We’re back in the Hundred Acre Wood, we’re calming it down.”
Likewise, the design of the animal characters is more muted; the colours are softer and their fur looks a little worn. Pooh “is a little less rambunctious”, adds Cummings. When Forster hired the actor, they spoke about adjusting his performance. “He’s different to the cartoon,” says the director. “It’s more subtle. It’s like a warm blanket. You hear the guy’s voice and you go straight back into this nostalgia.”
It’s certainly a different experience to last year’s Goodbye Christopher Robin, which starred Domhnall Gleeson as Milne, overcoming the horrors of fighting in the First World War to create Pooh, only for his son to suffer at school for being the real Christopher Robin. Ironically, that’s a film that’s much closer to Forster’s Finding Neverland (2004), in which Johnny Depp played J M Barrie, the man who wrote another children’s literature classic, Peter Pan.
That was just Forster’s third movie. “I was still very naive,” he remembers. While the 48-year-old director has since gained more control of his craft, he says, he wanted to return to this more innocent state – “Sometimes it’s nicer to be naive,” he says. To achieve this, he hired Matthias Koenigswieser, a much younger cinematographer, to help provide “a fresh perspective”. He also reunited with McGregor, with whom he worked on 2005’s thriller Stay, the last of this early ‘naive’ phrase in his career.
Cummings was impressed with McGregor’s performance even if they were never together (his lines were recorded after the main shoot). “I said, ‘I feel like we know each other. We’ve been talking to each other for months on end. Just not in the same room at the same time’” Whether they will get a chance to work together remains to be seen. Forster doesn’t know if Disney is planning a sequel but he’s game. “To be honest, I could easily stay in Christopher Robin’s world,” he smiles.
His daughter will be pleased.
Christopher Robin is in cinemas across the UAE from August 16