In most lexicons, nostalgia means either a wistful longing for the past or products and artifacts that invoke that feeling. Contemporary film is glutted with nostalgia. Sequels and franchise films parlay the profits banked by their predecessors, often reducing beloved narratives to familiar slogans and cookie-cutter plot formulas. To date, eight of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2018 are either sequels or franchise films. Only A Quiet Place and Ready Player One are new cinematic stories, and the latter, while wildly entertaining, is based on a novel of the same name and relies almost completely on affection for the games and films of a previous era.
It’s especially important for Christians to be aware of the nostalgia craze and to distinguish between nostalgia and memory, as nostalgia can be a particular temptation for us. The NIV translation of the Bible uses some form of the word remember more than 200 times. In his epistles, Paul often urges readers to remember the past events and relationships, both as an encouragement and a caution (Eph. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:3). But it is equally important to note that the Christian exercise of memory includes the acknowledgment of past pain and suffering. Good memories should be an encouragement in the face of current trials, not a psychological escape from them. In stark contrast, the etymology of nostalgia roughly translates as “homesickness”; the nostalgic person does not simply remember the past or take strength from it, he or she longs to return to it as deeply as an exile longs to return home. That backward-looking focus can be paralyzing and counterproductive, and it is the antithesis of learning to be content “in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12).
As vault keepers for our childhood memories, Disney is one of the most prolific and persistent nostalgia brokers, with its new films—like Christopher Robin—too often recycling, invoking, adapting, or repeating its previous films. This won’t change any time soon: Christopher Robin comes with trailers for Mary Poppins Returns (“where wonder once lived”) and Wreck-It Ralph 2. The latter features Vanellope visiting a Disney website and interacting with princesses from movies past. Why build a new imaginary world when you can endlessly revisit your favorite worlds via YouTube, DVDs, theme parks, and licensed merchandise?
Lest I sound too much like the cranky grandfather chasing a new generation of kids off my proverbial lawn, I should stress that there is nothing inherently wrong with extending or adapting beloved stories. I was introduced to the world of the 100 Acre Wood not through Milne’s own books but through the animated film that gave voice and movement to it in the 1970s. I am grateful for loving, successful renderings of classic stories that have served as my gateway into hours of pleasure and the contemplation of important themes and ideas. Paddington 2 was as fresh and delightful as Christopher Robin is not. The Lego Batman Movie weds its commercial reason for being with a genuinely fun and unpredictable movie experience.
But here’s the crux of the matter. Christopher Robin is a bad movie. It’s a dull, listless slog with no real reason for being other than to promote the sale of stuffed toys to those who already have them but now need an excuse to buy more of the same. I say that as someone who perhaps overvalued Goodbye Christopher Robin, rating it one of the top ten films of 2017. In other words, I am the target audience for Disney’s new film—a viewer who loves the bear of little brain more than I ever will the boy with the lightning scar or the girl from Panem.
What went wrong?
First, the focus is on the adult Christopher (Ewan McGregor), who has put away all his childish things in exchange for a dreary sales job for a luggage manufacturer. The beloved characters are introduced before the credits, so their appearance comes before any anticipation builds and is without wonder or surprise. When humans do see them they are momentarily amazed but quickly blasé, and the stuffed toys don’t prompt a Kuleshov effect the way that more simply rendered animated characters often do. It doesn’t help the static nature of the film that the characters themselves lack emotional or vocal range, giving the film a monotone quality. The low-key lighting and sentimental music rarely change from scene to scene, bathing the film in one emotion rather than accentuating different ones in different scenes.
Christopher’s transition from cranky adult to embracer of his inner child is as sudden and unexplained as the way his clothes magically dry out after he sleeps outdoors all weekend. McGregor does find a note of embittered, embattled softness in his character, but even he can’t wave a broken weather vane at an invisible Heffalump for an hour without prompting all but the most patient viewers to inwardly prompt him to get on with saving his job and marriage. I wanted Christopher to have an actual conversation with his wife and daughter that extended beyond telling them that he has to go to work. But as with his conversations with Pooh, there is little to no variety in his adult conversations. Once the film sets up the characters’ conflicts, it simply reminds us of them by having them repeat the same exchanges and conversations again and again—a signifier of the problem with the whole premise.
Perhaps the scene that best illustrates the difference between evoking nostalgia and actually prompting it is the one in which Christopher’s daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), meets the denizens of the woods for the first time. “Not the song!” Eeyore groans as Tigger warms up for his signature melody about why he is wonderful. On cue, Tigger rushes through a verse of “I’m a Wonderful Tigger” and Eeyore sighs, “He does that a lot.” The script seems to operate on the assumption that if it announces and acknowledges the stale predictability of its character moments, this makes it a postmodern wink rather than a routine bit of fan-service retrieved from a warehouse of character-defining moments from past movies.
It bears repeating (pardon the pun) that nostalgia is not intrinsically bad. Christians should avoid disdaining the past as much as revering it. It is when invoking nostalgia becomes an end in itself that we should worry. Stated differently, when we divorce the feelings of nostalgia from the objects that provoke them or from honest assessments about the times and places they represent, we risk worshiping our own feelings. And if we become addicted to feeding our feelings of nostalgia, we may eventually stop looking for things worthy of our affection in the present moment and stop making works of art that renew and replenish our joy.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.