‘Facts of Life’ reboot in early development
There’s a scene in “Shadowlands,” the 1993 portrait of novelist C.S. Lewis, in which a young boy is excited to discover the giant wooden wardrobe that inspired “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” He throws open the door and reaches through the coats hoping to find Narnia … only to feel cold, hard wood at the back of the armoire. Disney wouldn’t dare undermine one of its franchises with such a scene, and yet, with “Christopher Robin,” it’s made a movie that feels similarly disenchanting — the latest and least of the studio’s live-action reboots of a widely adored cartoon.
Whereas “Winnie-the-Pooh” author A.A. Milne probably would have approved of the concept behind director Marc Forster’s well-meaning spinoff, it’s hard to imagine him being especially pleased with the result, in which an enchanted reunion between the now-adult title character (Ewan McGregor) and his stuffed bear helps to put the grown boy’s priorities into perspective. As for audiences, the film is a disappointment but not a disaster, falling far short of the bar set by such recent live-action films as “Cinderella” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”
As much as the world loves what Disney has done with Pooh over the years, perhaps the studio wasn’t the appropriate party to tackle such a project, so invested is it in not tarnishing the reputation of one of its most successful brands (who was right behind Mickey as the company’s No. 2 merchandising character until the conglomerate gobbled up the Star Wars and Marvel universes). Baked into the concept of “Christopher Robin” — whose cumbersome screenplay credit lists three writers, two “story by” guys, original author A.A. Milne, and illustrator E.H. Shepard — is what seems to be its biggest flaw: an unwillingness to let Pooh be seen as “just a toy” in the eyes of either its characters or the audience. That is to say, Pooh and the gang are depicted as living creatures at all times to all people, complicating what it means for Christopher Robin to have left them behind.
This project finds director Forster back in “Finding Neverland” mode — although as J.M. Barrie comparisons go, it essentially does for Pooh what “Hook” did for Peter Pan, turning its ostensible hero into a middle-aged bore. Back in British period territory, Forster does a reasonably successful job of creating a consistent, nostalgia-infused tone for the entire film, which borrows episodes and fortune-cookie philosophies directly from Milne’s oeuvre. As it happens, the movie “Goodbye Christopher Robin” covered similar ground last year, exposing the somewhat surprising true story of Milne’s relationship with his son, Christopher Robin, who felt that his childhood was compromised by his father’s literary success, and who ultimately came to resent the character of Pooh — which might have been an even more interesting, albeit far riskier point from which to begin this project.
The film opens with the final scene of “The House at Pooh Corner,” in which Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, the same actor who has performed the character for the past three decades) and friends — Tigger (also Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) — host a farewell dinner for 9-year-old Christopher (Robin is now his last name), who is bound for boarding school. It’s amusing to see these familiar characters rendered as Milne might have known them, looking alive behind their worn plush “fur” and unblinking button eyes. That way, the voices supply most of the personality (Eeyore is a scene-stealer), while subtle digital animation around their mouths and brows allows these toys to convey a surprisingly wide range of emotions (quite literally underscored by Jon Brion and Geoff Zanelli’s update of the cartoon’s classic theme).
McGregor is a perfectly likable actor, which helps soften the character’s shortcomings, but Christopher isn’t very interesting, and the film’s familiar lesson — conveyed via one of Pooh’s more ridiculous mantras, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something” — feels more than a little bit unfair. The movie basically ingratiates itself with kids by scolding adults for losing track of what’s important, and yet, both in the 1940s and today, a responsible father doesn’t really have the option of quitting his job. In the movie, Madeline doesn’t want to go off to boarding school, and we’re asked to hope that Christopher won’t force her. But surely Milne, a role model such as Mr. Rogers, or any reasonable adult could find a more constructive message than “Do nothing!”
LOS ANGELES: Sony Pictures Television may resurrect “The Facts of Life.”
Sources have confirmed to Variety that Jessica Biel and Leonardo DiCaprio are both in talks with Sony to act as executive producers for the show with their respective production companies, Ocean Films and Appian Way. Sony Pictures Television owns distribution rights to the show, and is currently in early talks for launching a reboot. It currently does not have a network attached and a writer has not yet been selected.
The show premiered in 1979 as a spinoff of another popular sitcom, “Diff’rent Strokes.” It ran for nine seasons until 1988 on NBC, making it one of the longest-running television shows in the 1980s. The half-hour episodes revolved around Charlotte Rae’s character, Edna Garrett, as she becomes a housemother for an all-girls boarding school, Eastland School, in the southern tip of New York.
The show also starred Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, and Nancy McKeon and earned three Emmy nominations. The reboot comes on the heels of the news of numerous classic television shows getting a reboot season. That includes “ALF,” which is in talks for a reboot from Warner Bros TV, and Kelsey Grammer is reportedly meeting with writers and producers for a potential “Frasier” reboot. (RTRS)
By Peter Debruge