Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther
Director: Simon Curtis
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Rating: PG for bucolic English countrysides, extremely mild PTSD, and somber truths behind beloved child lit icons.
Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Limited)
You think you know Winnie-the-Pooh, but you have no idea. The simple-minded, honey-loving bear who accompanied Christopher Robin on his adventures through the Hundred Acre Woods may be perhaps the most universally adored character in all of children’s literature, but his creator, AA Milne (Gleeson) and his family paid a mighty and ultimately tragic cost for all of that adoration, as profiled in Goodbye Christopher Robin, one of those lovely, jejune, tweedy biopics that seem designed to sprout up in cinemas every autumn, yet you find yourself forgetting about almost entirely the second you exit the theater.
When we first meet Milne, whom his friends and family call “Blue” (everyone in this movie has a million different nicknames and it can get very confusing), he is reeling from the trauma of his experiences in the trenches of World War I, and wants to abandon the stage comedies he’s known for in favor of a grand treatise against war. This rather bothers his socialite wife, Daphne (Robbie), who would rather attend an endless series of cocktail parties and high society dinners than take her husband’s PTSD seriously, saying he may as well write a book “against Wednesdays.” However, she soon incurs some trauma of her own, in the form of the painful birth of their son, Christopher Robin (Tilston), whom they call Billy Moon (it doesn’t help that she was really hoping for a girl, either).
Before long, our clan has relocated from London to the English countryside, with Billy Moon’s beloved nanny, Olive (Macdonald), whom he calls Nou. Milne is at first too preoccupied with writing to pay too much attention to the boy, but when Daphne throws a fit and heads back to her socialite life, and Nou must go take care of her ailing mother, Milne and Billy Moon find themselves getting along brilliantly, taking long walks in the woods, and dreaming up adventures for the boy’s menagerie of stuffed animals, including a bear, a piglet, and a tiger. You can probably guess where this is all going, but this stretch of Goodbye Christopher Robin represents the high point of what is otherwise a fairly by-the-numbers biopic. Gleeson and the young Tilston form a delightful and believable father and son bond, bringing out the best in each other as actors in the process. Not to mention, it’s hard not to swoon over the beautiful scenery, captured in honey-tinted majesty by cinematographer Ben Smithard.
Milne, realizing he has something special, soon turns those afternoon strolls into a book, and that book, as you know, ends up capturing the imagination of a world reeling from senseless carnage. However, as the imaginary Christopher Robin becomes more famous, the real Christopher Robin becomes the unwitting victim of that success. No longer allowed to be just an ordinary little boy, his life becomes an endless barrage of press conferences, book store appearances, and photo shoots, including a particularly dangerous scenario with the real life bear who was Winnie’s namesake. It is very much to the film’s credit that it does not shy away from the sad irony that Milne’s work ultimately ruined the life of the person he made it in tribute to in the first place. Not many films would be willing to go to such unflattering lengths.
Speaking of unflattering, Goodbye Christopher Robin is not without its issues, chief amongst them being Daphne. Margot Robbie, a very talented and likable actress, is unfortunately stuck in an unlikable role that varies in unlikability depending on the need of the scene. On one hand, she is the one who gifts Billy Moon with the toys that end up inspiring the Winnie-the-Pooh series (even giving them endearingly goofy voices). But on the other, she is also portrayed as resenting her son for his gender and difficult birth, and not caring about anything except her social status and partying (when she finally returns and Milne asks her what she was up to in London, she basically says oh don’t worry about it and the movie never brings it up again), and unsympathetic to the possibility that the publicity is ruining his life. It says something when the most satisfying scene in the film is when Macdonald (who could ably perform this part unconscious and with her hands tied behind her back) tells Daphne, in one very polite but very damning sentence, what a terrible mother she is.
Finally, there is the frustration over the fact that, after bravely establishing the difficulties Billy Moon will be damned with for the rest of his days, the film tries to shoehorn in a happy ending, involving an older Billy Moon (Lawther) rebelling against his parents by going off to fight in World War II. It feels sloppy and tacked on, like the filmmakers wanted us to know the real story, but were worried that going too negative would taint our fond memories of that silly ol’ bear. Unfortunately, in doing so, they’ve created a movie that you won’t have many memories of at all once its done, positive or otherwise. Oh, bother.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is Recommended If You Like: Finding Neverland, Saving Mr. Banks, Shadowlands, Tom Hooper’s work, films that are clearly made for the sole purpose of winning Oscars but end up not even getting nominated.
Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Stuffed Animal Tea Parties