WARNING: if you have preserved warm, fuzzy memories of Winnie the Pooh and his friends of the Hundred Acre wood and would like to keep them that way, don’t see Goodbye Christopher Robin. Maybe don’t even read this review.
Revealing the story behind A.A. Milne’s creation of his much beloved Pooh bear books, Goodbye Christopher Robin stars Domhnall Gleeson as the author, a popular West End playwright known for comedies. But after serving on the merciless fields of World War I, Milne has lost his taste for jokes. Thirsting to write something that matters, Milne uproots his socialite wife (Margot Robbie in a thankless “bad mom” role) and young son (Will Tilston), transporting them from the luxuries and liveliness of London to a quiet cottage in a remote wood. There, Milne hopes to write a world-changing treatise against war. But once he finds happiness in playing with his son in the woods, a new book takes shape starring the boy’s toys. While it will change the world for the better, it will also destroy the life of the child who inspired it.
To his family and the nanny who raised him, Christopher Robin was Billy Moon. But to the world he was an enchanted child, who they desperately wanted a piece of. Long before child stars, this boy was herded from one publicity event to the next, costumed just like in the book’s illustrations. His happy days of play in the woods with his toys ripped away, replaced with gawking, endless interviews, and mounting terror that no one knows or cares about the real Christopher Robin, only the fantasy his father birthed.
It’s a terribly sad story. And one that director Simon Curtis does no justice. He races us through so much. Milne’s traumatizing time at war is one brief sequence that surreally collides with an elegant ball. In the blink of an eye, his wife goes from gleeful party girl to screaming mother. Another blink and here come the toys, they’re well-known names hastily introduced. Then we race through the first book’s creation and success with montages sentimental and then frantic. Later, we will tumble through the boy’s boarding school days with a sequence of him being repeatedly shoved down stairs by a band of chanting bullies. So too we will rush through the grown Billy’s pivotal confrontation with his father over the “hell” Milne’s work brought to his life. And just when the movie seems over, here comes one last rushed sequence that tacks on a happy ending squeaky with unearned forgiveness. But oh how we lingered in young Billy’s pain.
The second act shifts protagonist from Milne to Billy, tying us to a wide-eyed devastated child, heartbroken and lashing out because he feels unloved. Curtis drags our collective love for Pooh through the muck as he reveals the tragedy behind its cheerful exterior, the torment and neglect of the seemingly every-blissful Christopher Robin. But then he commits the disservice of an emotionally tone deaf ending that seems a sloppy balm to our fresh guilt.
Even when fathers love their children, they can make mistakes that cut deep. These wounds are not simply healed. Distance and ignoring them does nothing. Frankly, it’s emotionally dishonest for Curtis to betray his titular character by quick cutting to forgiveness. But beyond that, it’s a lie. The real Christopher Milne may have personally forgiven his father at some point. But as an adult and author in his own right, he was public in his pain about his Pooh past. To recognize that pain, to hastily paste over it is not just crass, but cruel. Especially because if this was meant to tell the untold story of Christopher Robin, it betrays him the final scene, letting both his father, and the audience who hounded him off the hook.
Overall, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a maudlin and frustrating film. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, the same could be said for Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn, which was nearly necrophilic in its mutual ogling of Marilyn Monroe’s beauty and impending doom. Simon seems to think that if a story is “true” it’s enough to make it interesting, beyond that there feels little intention to his tales. And so even when they may be prettily shot and bolstered by a cast that’s charming and at times compelling (Kelly Macdonald is a standout as Billy’s beloved Nanny), they are emotionally vapid, leaving you only with a sense of vague sadness where once there may have been wonder.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is now in theaters.
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