Heavyweight studio Disney and Hollywood A-lister Ewan McGregor are embroiled in a bizarre saga involving an innocuous fictional animal and China’s powerful president.
McGregor’s turn in Christopher Robin, Disney’s new $101 million Winnie the Pooh adaptation, won’t be seen in China after the country’s film authorities denied it a release, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
No official reason has been given for the decision, but as reported by a bemused BBC, “It’s believed to be part of a nationwide clampdown on references to the beloved children’s character”.
Why the ban? A headline in UK tabloid The Sun perhaps put it best: “Winnie the Pooh film banned in China after Xi Jinping was compared to dopey bear.”
According to multiple reports, Chinese authorities have been blocking images of the 94-year-old Pooh on social media for years, after the AA Milne creation became an unlikely touchstone for political dissent.
The drama was ignited in 2013 when an image of President Xi doing a walk-and-talk with President Barack Obama was posted next to an image of Pooh strolling with offsider Tigger.
A “passing resemblance” between the furry friends and world power brokers, one lanky, one not, was noted.
The comparison and its fallout had enough bite – or charm, depending on how it was viewed – to be picked up by the likes of the Financial Times.
— Financial Times (@FT) July 16, 2017
A year later, the Xi doppelganger thing came up again.
A snap of the President looking down while shaking hands with a doleful Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shared and compared to a picture of Pooh with Eeyore.
— Josh Chin (@joshchin) November 10, 2014
The increasingly popular memes reportedly gave Chinese censors a new job: blocking images, GIFs and even mentions of Pooh on social media platforms.
According to the BBC, in 2015 a photo of Mr Xi standing in a motorcade limo next to an image of a small Pooh in a toy car was dubbed “China’s most censored photo” by political analysis company Global Risk Insights.
The photo, according to one post, was used “to taunt” the President.
(Web) En Chine, la photo la + censurée en 2015 est celle d'un jouet Winnie l'Ourson utilisée pour railler Xi Jinping pic.twitter.com/YvddMCkbRR
— Chronique Disney (@ChroniqueDisney) January 6, 2016
While Pooh was busy just living his best life, his notoriety was growing in China.
This June, British talk show host John Oliver roasted Mr Xi’s sensitivity to Pooh parallels during a critical segment on his US show Last Week Tonight.
He was promptly censored.
While there are worse things than being compared to a cuddly children’s icon, Global Risk Insights suggested the alleged similarities could be seen by Beijing as “a serious effort to undermine the dignity of the presidential office and Xi himself”.
The company said at the time that while “authoritarian regimes are often touchy”, the anti-Pooh sentiment is “confusing” and squashes a potential “organic” PR campaign to show Mr Xi “as a benevolent ruler”.
But that’s just one theory.
When it came purely to the vexed case of Christopher Robin, The Hollywood Reporter noted China’s annual foreign film quota only allows for 34 international releases a year.
The live action film telling the story of Robin reuniting with childhood stalwart Pooh as an adult may just not have made the cut, despite McGregor’s leading man chops.
Earlier this year Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time was also denied a Chinese release.
Skyscraper, Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Ant-Man and The Wasp made the grade.