Home > Reviews > CHRISTOPHER ROBIN – Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN – Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Winnie the Pooh has been a character beloved to millions of children all over the world since author A. A. Milne first created him in 1926. The honey-loving bear of ‘very little brain’ has been a part of the Disney stable of characters since the 1960s, and has gone on to appear in multiple animated films. This new film, Christopher Robin, is somewhat different. Directed by Marc Forster and starring Ewan McGregor, it is the first ever live action Pooh film, and the first one ever to explore the lives of the characters after the books and stories ended. McGregor plays the adult Christopher Robin, now all grown up and living in post-war London with his wife Evelyn and young daughter Madeline. As a manager at a struggling luggage company, Christopher Robin spends far too much time at work, neglecting his family; he has also seemingly forgotten all about his beloved childhood friends, and lost the gift for playful imagination that he had in abundance as a youth. During one particularly stressful weekend, having been forced to work by his superior instead of going to the countryside with his family, Christopher Robin is visited by Winnie the Pooh; Pooh tells him that all his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood – Piglet, Eeyore, and the rest – have vanished and he needs Christopher Robin’s help to find them. The film co-stars Hayley Atwell, Mark Gatiss, and Bronte Carmichael, as well as the voices of Jim Cummings and Brad Garrett.

Christopher Robin is quite unlike any other Winnie the Pooh film. Yes, it contains plenty of the usual antics from Pooh and his friends – getting faces stuck in honey jars, clumsily knocking things over, and so on – but it also contains a deeper message about not forgetting the things that make you happy, maintaining at least some of the sense of innocence and playfulness you had as a child into adulthood, and finding a healthy balance between the responsibilities to both work and family. While some may find these messages obvious and perhaps a little trite, especially as they have been explored before in films such as Steven Spielberg’s Hook, I personally felt that they were done in a tasteful, non-preachy way that works for both children and adults. It also helps that the film is artistically excellent; the rendering of Pooh, Eeyore, and the others in the ‘real world’ is astonishingly realistic – although they are clearly toys, the CGI that creates their interactions with the world around them is breathtaking, whether it’s Pooh dragging his feet through a pile of leaves or a puddle of honey, or gradually becoming soggier as raindrops fall on him. Director Forster conveys the Hundred Acre Wood as a magical, sylvan place; he shoots close ups of flowers, dew-covered branches, and mist-shrouded meadows, leaving the viewer with a feeling of something almost transcendent.

The anchor, though, is the performance of Ewan McGregor, who is excellent as the adult Christopher Robin. His interactions with Pooh are nothing short of miraculous; McGregor conveys so much emotion, so much longing, and such a deep and defining friendship with this old yellow bear. One particular scene, where Christopher Robin and Pooh are sitting on a tree stump gazing over the wood, and Christopher Robin breaks down in tears and apologizes to Pooh for forgetting about him, is for me one of the most emotionally honest and heartbreaking performances McGregor has given in his career, and it makes you forget that he was acting against literally nothing. Although this depth of emotion results in the film often having an unexpectedly downbeat and introspective tone for much of the time, it also makes the resolution that much sweeter when it comes.

The score for Christopher Robin has a bit of a complicated history. The film was originally due to be scored by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, but following the Icelander’s shocking death in February 2018 the scoring duties fell to Jon Brion, who is best known for scoring films such as Paranorman, Lady Bird, and most of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work. Then, just a month or so prior to the film’s expected release date, a second composer was announced in the shape of Geoff Zanelli; this usually signifies a situation where a film is having problems with its music. While it’s not clear exactly what Zanelli wrote and what Brion wrote, one can assume that Zanelli’s music replaced a significant percentage of Brion’s in the final cut of the film, as illustrated by the fact that Zanelli’s name appears first in the credits.

Whatever the case may be, the score is very much in keeping with the magical, almost dream-like tone of the film, in that it eschews the overt Englishness that one might expect to hear in a score for a film with this setting and this time period, and instead goes straight for the heart. However, again like the film, the score tends to be much more restrained than one would expect for a children’s fantasy film; instead, the score mirrors the journey that Christopher Robin takes. It begins with a sense of whimsy and innocence during his childhood, retains the melodic and instrumental ideas but reigns them in during his adulthood, before finally unleashing a torrent of emotion at the end.

In terms of orchestration, much of the music comes across as a combination of Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat. Zanelli uses a large string section to convey much of the score, but augments it with a myriad of solo instruments – chimes, bells, pizzicato strings, elegant pianos, woodwinds, harp – which allow it to be continually interesting from a textural point of view. In terms of themes, there is one major theme, two or three minor themes, and a couple of smaller motifs which are deeply integrated into the score. The major theme appears to represent Pooh himself, and his relationship with Christopher Robin, but it appears throughout the score in numerous guises, so it could simply be an overarching main theme for the film as a whole. It’s the first theme that appears in the opening cue, “Storybook,” heard on solo piano with fluttering adornments at 0:07; it’s light and elegant, full of prancing rhythms and lyrical progressions, all of which speak to the idyllic relationship between boy and bear at the beginning of the film.

What I like about the theme is that Zanelli gets a great deal of mileage out of it. It features prominently in multiple cues, but Zanelli is able to regularly shift its tempo and orchestration to convey subtly different emotions. In “I Would Have Liked It to Go on For a While Longer,” for example, the theme initially feels bittersweet, a little downcast, before pretty woodwinds take over the melody to give it a little tenderness. In the subsequent “Chapters” Zanelli adapts the theme to underscore a clever montage sequence which charts Christopher Robin’s life in the years after he left the Hundred Acre Wood and grew up; the woodwind phrasing has a Thomas Newman vibe to it, the rhythmic tick-tock in the percussion conveys the passing of time, while the open, carefree vocals give the theme a timbre similar to Carter Burwell’s score for Where the Wild Things Are that is infectious and adventurous.

Later, in “Easy to Lose Your Way on a Foggy Day,” Zanelli gives the Pooh theme an upbeat, jazzy, caper-like makeover to underscore Pooh’s clumsy antics hin is kitchen, making it sound a little like Alexandre Desplat’s score for Fantastic Mr. Fox. As the cue progresses it gradually segues into a muted pastoral variation on the Pooh theme to underscore his despondent search for his friends in the desolate woods, in which flutes and guitars are backed by strings and chimes that sound like raindrops, giving the whole thing a palpable sense of melancholy. Further performances of the Pooh theme in cues like the inquisitive “Through the Tree” with its gorgeous piano trills, the magical “It’s Not Stress, It’s Pooh,” and the pastoral “Sussex” keep the theme at the forefront of the score.

The first secondary theme is what I’m calling the Play Theme, as it appears to mostly represent the mischievous and energetic side of the story when Christopher Robin and Pooh get into a series of adventures together. The first appearance of this idea comes in “Train Station,” an upbeat little march filled with oompah rhythms, lively performances from strings and pianos, and a vivacious jazzy undercurrent, which accompanies Christopher Robin and Pooh as they make their way through a crowded platform – Pooh’s first time experiencing the hustle and bustle of Lon-Don. The subsequent “Returning to the Hundred Acre Wood” is clever as Zanelli arranges the Pooh Theme with the Play Theme’s orchestrations, and concludes with an especially emotional statement of the Pooh theme on woodwinds as Christopher Robin realizes that he has returned to the place where he was happiest in his life.

The Play Theme reappears in cues like “Heffalump Battle,” which underscores the scene where Christopher Robin re-discovers his imagination and engages in a mock swordfight to save his friends, as well as in “Expotition to London” and “Nothing Ever Bad Came from Bouncing,” which offset the theme against energetic snare drum trills, tambourine licks, a dancing dulcimer, and some lovely solo violin writing, These two cues are the closest the score comes to action music, and are playfully effervescent; the latter cue also features a bonus for Pooh fans as it contains a bold statement of the melody from Richard Sherman’s famous song “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers”.

The second secondary theme is what I’m calling the Loneliness Theme, and it appears to represent the separations that form the heart of the story – Pooh from Christopher Robin, Pooh from his friends, Christopher Robin from Evelyn and Madeline. It’s a five note theme, often heard on solo piano, and it first appears in the second cue “Not Doing Nothing Anymore” as a musical representation of the sadness Pooh feels at Christopher Robin’s impending departure from the Hundred Acre Wood; in it, the theme is accompanied by moodily abstract electronic tones, and beautifully bittersweet oboes that really convey Pooh’s despondency.

The theme returns in “Evelyn Goes It Alone,” which is emotional but downbeat, clearly alluding to the impending breakdown in the familial relationship between husband and wife. However, for me, the most interesting and emotionally resonant use of the theme comes in the moving “Did You Let Me Go?” Here, Christopher Robin’s two worlds collide, as the combined stresses of his responsibility to his job, his need to repair his marriage, and his relationship with Pooh, cause him to verbally lash out at his furry friend, possibly for the first time in his life. Zanelli uses dissonant metallic sounds and dark textures for harp and clarinet, while moving backwards and forwards between the Loneliness theme on solo cello and the Pooh theme on solo guitar, as Christopher Robin’s priorities shift back and forth. It’s an excellent piece of emotional, dramatic scoring, and is for me one of the score’s main highlights.

The score’s finale begins in “A Father of Very Little Brain,” after Christopher Robin finally comes to terms with the issues affecting his life, and resolves to save his daughter, his job, and his marriage in one fell swoop. The cue begins with more Play Theme action, as Christopher Robin, Evelyn, and Pooh’s friends race through the streets of London to find the missing Madeline and Pooh. There are several statements of the Pooh theme, and several big swells of orchestral emotion during the lovely sentimental finale as father and daughter finally connect. The final two cues – “My Favorite Day” and “I Do Nothing Every Day” – are warm, sunny, and delightfully endearing, with gentle piano writing, solo violins, lithe woodwinds, and several emotional swells of the Pooh theme. Christopher Robin and Pooh have found each other again after so many years apart, and now he can share the simple joys of playing Pooh Sticks with a wife and daughter whose love and affection have been restored by a silly old bear.

Walt Disney’s album also features three original songs by Richard M. Sherman, who wrote the majority of the songs for the original animated Pooh films with his late brother Robert. Sherman’s songs – “Goodbye, Farewell,” “Busy Doing Nothing,” and “Christopher Robin” – are playful, charming, and whimsical, and remind us just how lucky we are to have this legendary composer and songwriter contributing brand new original music to films in 2018, at the age of 90. Sherman actually appears in the film during the end credits, playing the piano and singing “Busy Doing Nothing” with his iconic New York drawl, in a scene on a beach where the employees of the luggage company are enjoying their new found leisure time. What a treasure he is.

As I said, I can certainly see how some people will find Christopher Robin to be a slightly understated disappointment, considering how much emotional restraint the composers show, especially during the first part of the score. There have also been criticisms of the fact that more of the Shermans’ original themes were not worked into the score, but personally I found that I didn’t miss them at all; although they are not on the score CD, the melody from the “Winnie the Pooh” song is heard several times in the film, and as I mentioned the Tigger theme does appear in one of the action sequences. I actually think that the choice not to use them more frequently was the right one, as doing so may have distracted from and altered the more introspective tone the composers adopted for much of the film.

Overall, I found the score to be an utter delight. The way Zanelli and Brion play with their three core themes over the course of the film is wonderful, and the sense of child like charm they convey is delightful, but for me the best part is the way the music faithfully addressed the emotional and intellectual point of the film – at its core, this is a film about balance, and finding ways to structure your life so that your family and your responsibilities are taken care of correctly, but that you never lose touch with the inner child that still lives in your heart.

Buy the Christopher Robin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Storybook (1:22)
  • Goodbye, Farewell (written by Richard M. Sherman, performed by Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Mohammed, and Sara Sheen) (1:19)
  • Not Doing Nothing Anymore (2:49)
  • I Would Have Liked It to Go on For a While Longer (2:04)
  • Chapters (2:59)
  • Evelyn Goes It Alone (2:33)
  • Easy to Lose Your Way on a Foggy Day (2:40)
  • Through the Tree (1:25)
  • It’s Not Stress, It’s Pooh (1:28)
  • Train Station (2:28)
  • Sussex (1:12)
  • Returning to the Hundred Acre Wood (4:26)
  • Did You Let Me Go? (3:37)
  • Swimmer or Sinker (2:11)
  • Heffalump Battle (1:30)
  • Is It Christopher Robin? (1:54)
  • But I Found You, Didn’t I? (2:35)
  • Madeline’s Red Balloon (0:54)
  • Expotition to London (4:14)
  • Nothing Ever Bad Came from Bouncing (1:40)
  • A Father of Very Little Brain (3:34)
  • My Favorite Day (2:43)
  • I Do Nothing Every Day (2:57)
  • Busy Doing Nothing (written and performed by Richard M. Sherman) (0:45)
  • Christopher Robin (written and performed by Richard M. Sherman) (1:18)

Running Time: 56 minutes 51 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2018)

Music composed by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion. Conducted by Tim Williams. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone, David Slonaker and Edward Trybek. Additional music by Bryce Jacobs, Philip Klein, Zak McNeil and Paul Mounsey. Original Winnie the Pooh themes by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Jon Mooney and Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion.

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