Based on the life and times of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne and his family, Goodbye Christopher Robin is an awards season friendly dramatization of the true story behind a literary icon and the real world people, events, and places that inspired them. Milne’s actual life is a fascinating case study in how a work of art that touches the hearts of people around the world, across multiple generations, can come at a great personal cost to its creator and their loved ones. Goodbye Christopher Robin is handsome and well acted, but has mixed success when it comes to presenting Milne’s life story in a neat and tidy package.
Following his experiences during WWI, Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) attempts to resume his old life as a playwright in England with his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), but finds himself traumatized by his time at war and disillusioned with the state of things in the world. After the birth of their son Christopher Robin, Alan coaxes Daphne into leaving the bustling city life behind to go live out in the countryside with their nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), based on the idea that Alan will be able to properly resume writing in their new home. Once there, however, Milne finds that his mind is as restless and distraught as it was in the city.
Upon getting (or, rather, having) to spend time with young Christopher (Will Tilston), Alan finds himself inspired by his son and their adventures together in the nearby woods, as well as Christopher’s toy animals. Over time, Alan begins to write stories about a fictional version of Christopher Robin (“Billy Moon”, as he’s nicknamed by his parents) and his friends like Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, who reside in the Hundred-Acre Wood. Alan’s Winnie the Pooh novels then go on to become a global phenomenon, offering hope and joy to millions of people and making Christopher Robin a household name. But what will the cost be to the real Christopher, who wanted nothing more than to spend time with his parents?
Goodbye Christopher Robin, as was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (The Railway Man) and Simon Vaughan (Ripper Street), is an insightful memoir comparable to such biopics as Finding Neverland and Saving Mr. Banks, in that it examines how whimsical classics – stories that delight countless children and parents around the world – are sometimes born out of tragedies in the lives of their authors, as well as their own personal failings. While Goodbye Christopher Robin is willing to present both Alan and Daphne Milne as flawed and sometimes downright unlikeable products of their time, it smooths over the rough edges of their troubling relationship with their son in an effort to paint the Milne family’s story in a more flattering light. This gives rise to a larger tonal issue that weakens the film’s otherwise solid narrative, as Goodbye Christopher Robin tries to spin a heartwarming story out of one that is more heartbreaking and poignant.
Director Simon Curtis brings the world of Goodbye Christopher Robin to life through aesthetically pleasing sunlit frames captured by his My Week With Marilyn cinematographer Ben Smithard, as well as lovely period costumes from Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Brooklyn) and production design by David Roger (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). Further setting the mood is the score by the Coen Brothers’ frequent collaborator Carter Burwell, which embellishes the wondrous vibe of Alan and Christopher’s time playing together in their own Hundred-Acre Wood, and nicely contrasts those scenes with the more dramatic somber moments of the film. If anything, Goodbye Christopher Robin looks and sounds too polished, given the messy emotions and difficult questions raised by its story. This further contributes to the sense that the film is tugging too hard on heartstrings, in an effort to lighten up its somber narrative proceedings.
On the other hand, Goodbye Christmas Robin doesn’t shy away from acknowledging Alan’s PTSD and uses clever editing transitions to illustrate how something as harmless as a balloon popping (or glaring stage lights) can trigger memories of his time at war. Gleeson is typically good here as the Winnie the Pooh author himself, crafting a three-dimensional portrait of the writer and painting his complicated relationship with his son in a touching light. Robbie is equally solid as Daphne, as the film allows her room to make Mrs. Milne feel like a real person and not simply a bad mother who often prioritized her social life over her family. That said, Daphne ends up somewhat underserved as a character, as Goodbye Christopher Robin focuses much much more on Alan and Christopher than her connection with either of them.
Olive is presented as being more of a proper mother figure to Christopher than Daphne, though Goodbye Christopher Robin struggles at times to juggle scenes of the pair’s time together with the moments between Christopher and his actual parents. Nevertheless, Macdonald is moving as ever in the role of Olive, while newcomer Will Tilston is equally believable as Christopher/ “Billy” – capturing his sense of childhood innocence, oblivious to how he is being used by his mother and father. Unfortunately, Goodbye Christopher Robin then commits the sin of telling rather than showing much of Christopher’s unpleasant coming of age, leaving Alex Lawther as the grownup Christopher Robin to do little more than explain the nature of his emotional journey.
Goodbye Christopher Robin successfully sheds light on the real-life events and people that led to Winnie the Pooh’s creation, but its sugarcoating of that story and efforts to give it more of a happy spin ultimately hamper the film. It’s an overall solid biopic all the same and, thanks to its compelling performances, will no doubt move some filmgoers to tears with its portrayal of the sad truth behind characters that have brought happiness to so many. Goodbye Christopher Robin isn’t necessarily a movie that begs to be seen on a big screen, nor is its likely to gain much traction this awards season (meaning, it’s not really a must-see for cinephiles). That said, those who are curious to learn more about what inspired the bear of very little brain and his friends in the Hundred-Acre Wood, may want to check it out at some point.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is now playing in a semi-limited U.S. theatrical release. It is 107 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language.
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