What was important to you when you were 10 years old? What occupied your mind and heart?
Now that you’re older, what do they house now?…
Watching Disney’s Christopher Robin helps us think about these important but tough questions. We might not like the answers we would give right now, but this film assures us it isn’t too late to make our inner child proud.
The Positive Effects of Nostalgia
Nostalgia is a powerful instrument in stories that gets a lot out of the audience. As you may have noticed there’s been a sudden rush of remakes and reboots lately as nostalgia is proven to sell tickets very well – but how? What does it do for us?
If you remember reading or watching Winnie the Pooh as a child, if you remember the series with any measure of fondness, and if you have also felt exhausted by the demands of adulthood then this movie might be a challenge to sit through without shedding a tear or two.
The sheer force of bittersweet nostalgia, both for ourselves and Christopher, when we hear Pooh’s raggedy voice for the first time in years can hit us harder than we expect.
As K. Natterer (2015) researched in “Nostalgia as the Future for Branding Entertainment Media? The Consumption of Personal and Historical Nostalgic Films and Its Effects”, the personal nostalgia that we feel when media reminds us of our own unique childhood has “significant positive effects on … [our] affective response and mood.” (p. 199) In other words, nostalgic stories remind us of our younger years, brightening our emotions and our frame of mind – we feel a bit lighter and more carefree when we see Winnie the Pooh tottering through the forest with his red balloon.
If we’re watching this movie during a stressful time (especially if our stress comes from adulting too much) this nostalgia effect alone is a little healing and chases some of our tensions away. We remember simpler times with gratitude and appreciation.
However, I suggest that Chistropher Robin offers a much more complex and meaningful experience than simple nostalgia.
We Are Christopher, Evelyn, and Madeline: “Identification”
The first 10 minutes of this movie are tough – we see Christopher Robin as the young boy we remember, our memories about his adventures are unlocked and we feel that nice lift to our mood. But very quickly, he bids farewell to his family of felt animals and suits up to hazard the dangers of boarding school, family loss, active duty in war, and developing a career – all in a flash. As we see him grow we cannot help but think about ourselves – all of our traumas and woes that have piled up since elementary school. Seeing Christopher Robin grow into Mr. Robin, to see a timeless character affected by the sorrows of age that we’ve also experienced, fills us with a strange sense of mourning for childhood – his and ours.
We also recognize ourselves in him as an adult. Despite who we are now we were kids once. We have gone through so much, too. We are generally good people and we work hard for our loved ones.
But he also grows up to be someone we might recognize from our own childhood – that loved one who seemed disconnected from us or even themselves, just out of reach when we really needed them.
We might remember what it was like to be Madeline, Christopher’s daughter. We remember the sting of loneliness or neglect as a child when someone we admired never seemed to have time for us. We might also remember how badly we tried to make them proud for very little in return.
We might also have felt like Evelyn at times in our relationships. We try to be understanding, but we have grown unsure, scared, or even frustrated over miscommunications or lack of consideration.
In Psychology of Entertainment, Jonathan Cohen describes that “identification” is when we “feel an affinity toward the character that is so strong we become absorbed… and come to an empathetic understanding for the feelings the character experiences… we experience what happens to the characters as if it happens to us” (p.184). We experience this character’s struggles as if they were our own, but we also are busy thinking about how their problems reflect our own. He states that this is a fluid process. Audiences can even flow in and out of identification with multiple characters – we don’t stay stuck in the mindset of one character. (p.185) One moment we are Christopher and the next we are Madeline. Cohen explains how identification is entertaining and keeps us invested in a story, however we can go one step further.
Cohen’s work with Michael D. Slater in “Identification, TEBOTS, and Vicarious Wisdom of Experience” details how the skill of identification can actually contribute to our emotional well-being:
According to Slater and Cohen (2017), media experiences like “identification with protagonists, expanded (vicarious) experience of the personal and social self, and elicitation of emotionally rich and complex responses that help accommodate life’s difficult realities, each in their own way can contribute to human well-being.” (p.127) That is, our ability to identify with different characters as they go through emotionally complex situations and try to overcome obstacles helps us learn vicariously through them about ourselves and our obstacles. Slater and Cohen (2017) explain, “identification with narrative protagonists can provide a means of self-exploration and identity development which are crucial processes in human maturation” (p.127). In short, when we are invited to identify with Christopher, Madeline, and Evelyn we are actually learning from what we feel through them. We gain insights and perspectives that guide us in our own lives to get through similar struggles and help us remember the value of our own relationships. We also gain a stronger sense of self; our identity is fortified when we learn more about others and think more deeply about ourselves in relation to them. All of this greatly contributes to our overall well-being and is why it feels so good to identify wiourselvesth such kind, but troubled characters.
We see Christopher’s confusion and disconnection from the needs of his family with a sympathetic lens when we identify with him, we think through the puzzles that are our own personal relationships (or our complicated childhoods from which we are all still recovering) as we watch him and his family.
What’s very healing is that when someone in the Robin family is upset or distant in this movie, none of them are villains. Instead we identify with each of them as confused and loving people who are trying their best, but are suffering from dashed hopes or are clouded by fear. Identifying with the Robin family helps us understand and maybe reconcile some of the pain we feel in our current family relationships. We might feel neglected, scared, or misunderstood, but this movie gently reminds us that our loved ones are struggling, too. We are inspired by the Robin family’s journey to live as they learn to – with playfulness, patience, and consideration.
The Prescription of “Nothing” + “Play”
This film and the entire philosophy behind Winnie the Pooh is that “nothing” is definitely “something” and that something is very important.
Stepping away from Media Psychology for just a moment I just want to share a quote from the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has helped thousands find peace in their daily lives through the practice of mindfulness:
“My path is the path of stopping, the path of enjoying the present moment. It is a path where every step brings me back to my true home. It is a path that leads nowhere. I am on my way home. I arrive at every step.”Thich Naht Hanh (from the book ‘I Have Arrived, I Am Home: Celebrating 20 Years of Plum Village Life’)
(Pooh was very close with his strangely profound, “I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been.”)
The idea of stopping – of doing “nothing” is very important. In our society, we rarely hear about the value of rest and mindfulness so to hear it so celebrated here is important – especially since one of the main demographics intended for this film are adults, most of whom (by the grace of being an adult) desperately need this reminder.
This film is a firm advocate of rest; encouraging us to do nothing for a while. It tell us that it is good to not always have a plan for every minute. This can be very healing; to not always have to justify or compensate every moment of rest but to see “nothing” as a valuable way to pass some time.
Additionally, we see an awful lot of healing in this film through “play“.
In Dottie Ward-Wimmer’s “The Healing Potential of Adults at Play“, she advocates the emotional benefits of play for adults in therapy. Her research connects play with greater creativity, insight, communication, and stress relief. Ward-Wimmer found that (2018), “Play can increase our self-esteem. It invites access to states of well-being and calm as well as silliness and joy. When relaxed in play, we often have an increased capacity for empathy and intimacy. Play is affirming” (pg. 4). Ward-Wimmer found that providing adults the opportunity to play opened up many new, helpful ways for people to express themselves and their anxieties in a healthy way.
With all this in mind it makes perfect sense that Christopher only became recognizable again to his friends once he remembered how to play. It would also serve us well to do some nothing for a little bit, play around a little to replenish our spirits, and re-introduce ourselves to our inner child.
The Power of Tenderness:
According to Bartsch and Oliver in “Appreciation of Meaningful Entertainment Experiences and Eudaimonic Well-Being”, the term “tenderness” in Media Psychology indicates mixed affect or “feeling happy and sad at the same time.” (p.84) This feeling is everywhere in this movie and it can be very useful.
This movie, for its simple and small plot, can hit us unexpectedly hard. This might be a feel good movie, but it hurts along the way. .
Bartsch and Oliver (2016) note that feeling tenderness, along with other themes, in meaningful media (such as human virtues, connection with others, and elevating feelings of inspiration), has the power to grant audiences long-term rewards like “deeper insight, social connection, and personal growth.” (pg.85) How we experience this phenomenon is when we learn new perspectives from stories that help us get out of our heads and fully imagine other people. This also helps us construct a better understanding of ourselves.
As we watch Christopher find himself – to learn how to play and rest – we feel very happy for him. We are delighted to see his furry friends recognize him again. But we might also be touched; even fighting back tears. We so desperately want to be recognized as our sweeter selves, too. We quietly mourn the time and opportunities we lost on our journey to responsibility, the neglect we’ve shown ourselves. We feel a powerful tenderness, towards Christopher, towards Pooh, and towards ourselves.
Realizing our feelings for ourselves can be challenging as adults, but very helpful on our path to emotional well being.Through tenderness we are inspired to practice self-compassion and to take care of ourselves in new ways.
Christopher Robin is a collection of heart-wrenching reminders of what happens when we forget our inner child. The things and people we love gather dust waiting for us to return to them, but we’ve just been too busy to see how the years have tattered their edges (or how raggedy we’ve gotten, too). The stress and fear have piled up and made us scared and maybe a little short-tempered. Before we knew it, we’ve become the Heffalump we dreaded as a child.
This film shows us something we really needed: it argues that we’re not so bad.
Like Christopher, we’re just confused and a little lost, going in circles. What we think are unbreakable rules and standards are a lot more flimsy and less valuable than we think. But, also like Christopher, we have a wealth of wisdom and compassion from our childhood that we can tap into. We have our own figurative Poohs and Piglets who would enthusiastically welcome us home if we pay them a visit, we just need to make the time.
Up to the final shot of the film we are reminded very softly, like a felt paw on our shoulder, that we should remember to nourish our inner child – to listen to them deeply and respectfully – and to be a little kinder to ourselves.
- Bartsch, A., & Oliver, M. B. (2016). Appreciation of meaningful entertainment experiences and eudaimonic well-being. In The Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being: International Perspectives on Theory and Research on Positive Media Effects (pp. 80-92). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315714752
- Cohen, Jonathan. Chapter. Bryant, J., & Vorderer, P. (2006). Psychology of entertainment. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- (née Greuling) K. Natterer (2015) Research Note: Nostalgia as the Future for Branding Entertainment Media? The Consumption of Personal and Historical Nostalgic Films and Its Effects. In: Siegert G., Förster K., Chan-Olmsted S., Ots M. (eds) Handbook of Media Branding. Springer, Cham
- Slater, Michael D. and Jonathan Cohen , “Identification, TEBOTS, and Vicarious Wisdom of Experience” , in The Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being ed. Leonard Reinecke and Mary Beth Oliver (Abingdon: Routledge, 12 Jul 2016 ), accessed 09 Dec 2018 , Routledge Handbooks Online.
- Ward-Wimmer, Dottie. (2018). INTRODUCTION: THE HEALING POTENTIAL OF ADULTS AT PLAY.