Goodbye Christopher Robin (United Kingdom, 2017)

October 20, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Goodbye Christopher Robin Poster

When reading the Winnie the Pooh books as a child, I remember being amazed by the revelation that Christopher Robin was a “real” boy. That caused me to wonder whether all the animals were real, too. Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the story of that “real” boy and the difficult relationships he had with his taciturn father, his distant mother, and fame itself. Although hewing close to the established facts, the movie amps up the sentimental content for maximum effect. Goodbye Christopher Robin, a “based-on-a-true-story” yarn directed by Simon Curtis and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughn, has some interesting things to say about someone thrust into the spotlight against their will but the sometimes heavy-handed emotional manipulation limits the production’s overall power and effectiveness.

Perhaps the only child in the world to despise A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories was his young son, Christopher Robin Milne (Will Tilston as a boy; Alex Lawther as a young man), for whom they were written. Christopher, who went by the nickname of “Billy Moon”, viewed the books as having taken something private and made it available to the entire world. Furthermore, since he was known to be the inspiration for the stories’ boy character, he was frequently forced to dress the part for photo ops and publicity events (such as a tea party with contest winners). He went along with all these things until his father belatedly realized that Winnie the Pooh was a trap not only for Billy but for the whole family. Nevertheless, Christopher Robin haunted Billy into adolescence when he was bullied at school and he eventually joined the army to fight in World War II in an attempt to escape his “legacy.”

Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin follows traditional bio-pic rules. We see the strained relationship between the affection-starved son and his father, famed author Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who, as a result of psychological trauma caused by World War I, is emotionally closed-off. The self-absorbed mother, Daphne (Margot Robbie), is rarely present and, when she is, she’s more apt to do damage than help. The nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) becomes a surrogate mother and father until she “betrays” the boy for a life of her own. Thematically, the narrative gains traction when it focuses on the unintended consequences of Winnie the Pooh’s success. Daphne is delighted, Alan accepts it all with a stiff upper lip, but the brunt of the publicity avalanche falls on Billy, who is ill equipped to cope with it. “I had a wonderful childhood,” he would later say. “But growing up was hard.” An idyllic period in his life spent playing in the woods is followed by the horror of becoming hunted by the paparazzi and his adoring “fans.”

Goodbye Christopher Robin’s attempts to trace the development of Pooh and his band of friendly animals is unevenly presented. One key theme – that of the way the between-years era was fraught with trauma and angst for a generation that lost so much in “The War to End Wars” – is broached but never fully explored. This is unfortunate because Alan’s relationship with Billy is grounded in this. He was damaged in World War I. He wrote to salve the wounds yet, in the end, that writing drove his son to enlist as a way of escape. The movie hints at but never fully captures the grimness of the 1930s as Hitler’s rise to power made it apparent that “The War to End Wars” might not have been anything of the kind.

For Domhnall Gleeson, who seems to be in every other movie made these days, this is another fine performance for his resume. It’s not flashy or showy; he captures the internal conflict experienced by Alan as he balances his own issues with his growing awareness of the damage he’s inflicting on his son. Margot Robbie plays Daphne as an out-of-touch, narcissistic socialite who is contrasted with Kelly Macdonald’s caring nanny. Will Tilston, making his feature debut portraying Billy at age 8, seems overcoached. Technically, his acting is fine but at times it feels artificial.

There are some odd parallels between Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and Goodbye Christopher Robin. Both transpire at least in part during the 1940s and chronicle the factors that resulted in the creation of pop icons as well as the consequences of that work. The movies also offer elements of social commentary – Professor Marston about feminism and Christopher Robin about the downside of fame. The differences in tone, however, make the former film superior to the latter. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is lively and passionate where Goodbye Christopher Robin is formal and sentimental. The problem with Goodbye Christopher Robin is that, although it tells its story, there’s no sense of freshness or energy to the approach. Winnie the Pooh is timeless and unforgettable. The same qualities don’t apply to this tale of the real-life people and circumstances that inspired his creation.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (United Kingdom, 2017)

Director: Simon Curtis
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther
Home Release Date: 2018-01-23
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughn
Cinematography: Ben Smithard
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2017-10-13
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1