Has Winnie the Pooh become a franchise?

Disney’s ‘Christopher Robin’ and the appeal of childhood escapism

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It feels inappropriate to refer to Winnie-the-Pooh as a franchise, as though it would sully the precious world found in A A Milne’s classic childhood novels. Nevertheless, as this summer saw the release of yet another film returning to the Hundred Acre Wood, Disney’s Christopher Robin proves that the well of Pooh-related stories has not run dry, and I suspect that much like comic books or Shakespeare, it will continue to inspire films for years to come.

This time round, we have a grown-up Christopher Robin in post-war Britain, with a wife and daughter to support through a miserable job at a luggage company. Having grown weary and cynical, he finds himself compelled to return a lost Winnie-the-Pooh to the Hundred Acre Wood via his childhood home, just as his familial relationships have reached straining point. I shan’t go into too much more detail about the plot, for I suspect that most will be able to fill in the gaps themselves fairly easily. However, I did not mind that it was predictable; rather like Christopher Robin himself, throughout the course of the film I felt myself returning to a world that I thought I had left behind in my childhood, only to see that to do so was to come back to a warm, welcoming, comforting place that still had relevance to my life now.

What is it about Winnie-the-Pooh that makes it so appealing for audiences? If I dare use the term again, when we consider other ‘franchises’, particularly superhero films or fantasy series, they offer obvious means of escapism. Powers that can take on villains threatening the whole of humanity, worlds more magical and mystical than our own, and magnificent creatures with abilities far beyond that of a bear or a piglet, all whisk us away from day-to-day life. How can a couple of animals in an English forest compete with that?

What struck me throughout the film was how convivially the animals interact with one another despite their imperfections…

I believe that Milne’s world occupies a unique niche in the sort of escapism that it provides. For it does take us away from the everyday. Physically, the wood is a refuge for the child Christopher Robin from the world of adults and responsibilities, a place he can run away to when he just needs to play, something that I’m sure the child readers/audiences can identify with. For the adult Christopher, it is a world away from the grind of smoggy London life, a place where he doesn’t need to try to piece his life back together because it’s just there ready for him.

Perhaps more profound is the type of relationships that define life in the forest. What struck me throughout the film was how convivially the animals interact with one another despite their imperfections. Their character types seem to mirror people we all know. For don’t we recognise in a worrier like Piglet or a perpetual pessimist like Eeyore or a know-it-all like Owl the very same people we meet in real life? Yet in this world, they all happily have tea together instead of tearing one another to bits, joining together to fight the Heffalumps of the world. As Christopher leaves the cutthroat office environment to find the friends he left behind as a child, it reflects a deep desire in us to simply exist in mutual acceptance just as we are. I think this is far more noticeable for the grown-ups in the audience.

Its escapism works because it is so subdued, and thus, so accessible. It still offers us something we don’t often get in real life – a dip back into childhood, or animals that talk, or simply good company where you don’t have to fear judgment – but locates these in a world we know well. The Hundred Acre Wood could be found in your back garden if you just looked hard enough. It provides us with the possibility that once we leave the cinema we can recreate a bit of that world in our own homes. We can play Pooh sticks or have a tea party or get along with people better. Despite my 8 year-old self believing she could find Narnia at the back of her wardrobe if she persisted in her attempts, most stories we tell ourselves of a world beyond our own we cannot carry with us in such a way. Winnie-the-Pooh however, is like a pot of honey – a golden, simple, nourishing experience.

Image credit: Disney.