Film Review – Goodbye Christopher Robin
Goodbye Christopher Robin
The world of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends stands out because of its simple and wholesome nature. Where Looney Tunes had a tongue-in-cheek self awareness, and where other Disney classic animated characters became involved in fantastical adventures, Pooh Bear, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, and others stayed mostly within the Hundred Acre Wood. I say these names without describing them because they are so engrained in popular culture. It’s interesting to see how these characters have persevered over time given how cynical and pessimistic society can be. When things look grim and depressing, there’s something comforting about seeing a friendly bear go throughout his day just wanting to have some honey to eat.
And that’s the exact tone that permeates throughout Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017). Writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, along with director Simon Curtis, tell the story of Alan “A.A.” Milne, the writer who would create the world of Winnie-the-Pooh based on his experiences with his son Christopher Robin. There’s such a pleasant feeling, such an unassuming approach to the material that it becomes almost an anti-story. There are no true villains here, no surprise plot twists that would stir up false suspense. Any type of tension we get is minimal at best, and swept away almost as an afterthought. This is the kind of the movie that words like “nice” or “precious” were invented to describe.
But that’s not to say that nothing happens. Early scenes show Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) fighting in WWI. This experience would stay with him throughout the rest of his life, as he struggles with episodes of post traumatic stress disorder. Milne’s main ambition was to write a treatise on the war and how England would be able to rise out of the ashes of the struggle. It seems as though that he would create one of the most beloved children stories almost by accident. The Hundred Acre Wood was inspired by Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, where Milne had moved his family to escape the distractions of the city. The characters were all based on stuffed animals Christopher Robin actually owned, and their adventures were created out of the many walks Milne and his son would have around the property.
As Milne, Gleeson displays a unique mix of a hardened outer shell with a humanity bubbling underneath. Most times, Gleeson has a subdued and stern personality. Whether it was due to the war or not, Milne is portrayed here as not the most approachable of people. Even when the bond between Milne and Christopher Robin is formed and strengthened, Gleeson continues to deliver his dialogue in a passive voice. When Milne laughs with his son, it’s as though he is learning to laugh all over again. It’s a strange performance, but Gleeson has the skill to make it work.
As the young Christopher Robin, Will Tilston was put in a difficult position. Here is a young boy who unknowingly became a household name, whose very identity would be an inspiration for children around the world. Luckily, Curtis directs Tilston in a natural fashion. Tilston is not made to cast large speeches or to carry heavy emotional scenes. Instead, Tilston is asked to only be a young person, and to see the world through his own eyes. As he gains in popularity, Tilston expresses a wide-eyed confusion over what is happening. Christopher Robin only wants to spend time with his parents, his nanny, and his stuffed toys. Anything else is far beyond his interest or understanding.
The narrative is anchored by two excellent female performances. Kelly Macdonald plays Olive, the family’s nanny. Olive is the anchor – in many ways the glue that keeps the family together. She is the most focused, wanting only what’s best for Christopher Robin. As fame and fortune starts rolling in, she makes sure that the focus remains on the well being of the boy. Margot Robbie has an interesting role in Daphne Milne, Alan’s wife. Using her natural screen presence, Robbie draws us in despite her character not making the best decisions. Daphne is seen as a person who had a strong liking for a glamorous lifestyle. Although she clearly loved her son, Daphne was almost obsessed with luxury. We wonder if her support of Alan’s writing wasn’t so much an appreciation of his art rather than a desire to obtain the book sales. But that’s what makes Daphne so fascinating to dissect – to see where she really stands and where her true morals lie.
Cinematically, Goodbye Christopher Robin stumbles only when Curtis and the production team choose to go in more fanciful directions. When Alan and Christopher Robin imagine they are in the middle of the winter, we see actual snow start to fall all around them. To show his transition between military and civilian life, the editing has Alan walk through a door way in the middle of a battle and emerge on the other side safe and sound among friends. These flights of fancy call to mind a similar approach taken in Finding Neverland (2004), which was also about a writer coming up with a famous children’s story. But the magic doesn’t work quite as well here, especially given how austere the setting and tone is. The best moments are when Alan and Christopher Robin are interacting together, everything else was unnecessary window dressing.
Goodbye Christopher Robin isn’t going to set the world on fire, and that’s ok. There’s plenty of room for a film to take its time telling us a heartwarming story. It’s as lovely as sitting down with a good book and a warm cup of tea.