Alan Alexander Milne was already a writer of no small repute when he created a series of stories about Winnie the Pooh, the fictional talking teddy bear based on his son Christopher Robin’s stuffed toy and accompanied in his adventures by a cast of other fanciful talking creatures in a magical forest (not to mention a boy based on Christopher Robin himself and sharing his name). The success of the Pooh stories dwarfed all of Milne’s other work, causing him great irritation while making him a bigger success than he had ever been previously. The Pooh stories also ultimately caused a rift between Milne, his wife and their son, the latter of whom felt he was being exploited by his parents in the celebrity culture of the time (the mid-1920s) and distanced himself from the family legacy for years.
All this is recapped in Goodbye Christopher Robin, a new film that chronicles many of the events mentioned above while also attempting insight into the psyche of Milne and the creation of the Pooh stories themselves. I use the word “recapped” specifically because there comes a point in Goodbye Christopher Robin — after a first half that falters at first but then features some poignant and even magical moments — where director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan feel compelled to start cramming the story with incident after incident, rushing through the success of Pooh and its effect on the Milnes in such a way that it feels almost like two different movies have been stapled together and are fighting for space.
Shot and designed in those soft, just-so hues that are the trademark of late fall Oscar-season releases, the movie begins with Milne’s return from duty during World War I, which leaves him with a case of PTSD and an urge to abandon the light-hearted plays he’s been known for and write a serious polemic on war. But his trauma combined with a case of writer’s block leads him to move himself, his socialite wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) and their young son Christopher Robin (mostly played by Will Tilston) to the country (East Sussex to be exact), accompanied by Christopher’s dutiful nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).
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At first the move doesn’t go well for the family either, with an already distant Milne pulling even further away from his family and an exasperated, bored Daphne heading back to London on her own to resume her social schedule. When Olive has to depart unexpectedly to tend to her ill mother for a couple of weeks, that leaves father and son alone to fend for themselves — and they wind up embarking on a series of adventures and playdates in the vast forest around their home that eventually provides the inspiration for Milne’s most famous creation.
The middle section of the film — where Milne comes alive to his son, to his own imagination, to nature and to the delights of simple play — is the best part of the movie, a poignant study in how the most innocent of activities can overcome even the darkest scars on one’s soul. But after the first Pooh book is published and Daphne returns to manage the lives and success of her husband and son, the movie turns into a superficial skimming of the rest of the Milnes’ existence that paints them in the most unflattering light possible. Milne himself is a milquetoast pushover who passively watches his own success and begins to hate it, while keeping his son at a distance; Christopher Robin grows up rather abruptly to become a bitter brat who all but wants to throw himself in front of Nazi bullets during World War II as some sort of petty revenge against his parents; and most ill-served of all is Daphne, a one-dimensional shrew who seems to care even less for her son than her already chilly husband, who she doesn’t have much time for either.
The only character who emerges with any real dignity or humanity is Olive, and she eventually fades out of the picture for good (so would you if you had to put with the Milnes for any length of time). As for Gleeson and Robbie, he’s too young to play the middle-aged Milne and comes across stiffly, while Robbie works her one note like a child hitting an out-of-tune piano key over and over again. The movie tries to course-correct during its closing scenes, attempting to milk some sympathy or at least empathy for these poor whining rich folk, but by then the damage is done. It’s a wonder we got Pooh from these people.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is out in theaters Friday (October 13).