Like many, I was raised on the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and watched the various Disney movies which brought the “silly old bear’s” exploits to a whole new generation of fans. More importantly, I became a die-hard fan of the beloved donkey of these stories, Eeyore, as his depressed demeanor came to resemble my own for a time. The human boy at the center of these books, Christopher Robin, had a wonderful imaginary life which brought him to a place of love, happiness and adventure, so perhaps it’s not a surprise to learn the author of these books, A.A. Milne, did not always lead the happiest life. Yet in the process of trying to confront the horrors life inflicted on him, he found a wonderful way to escape from them, and millions of others joined him in this escape as well.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” offers the viewer a look into the complex relationship between A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne whose collection of stuffed animals came to inspire the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. I went into it thinking it would be a standard biopic which would recount how this honey-addicted bear and his various friends came into being, but I was stunned to see how the filmmakers covered more ground as the movie went on. Just when I thought the story was about to end, the movie takes another turn as it explores the effects of war, society, growing up, and fame have on both the youngest and oldest members of a family. It’s also a reminder of how no one, whether they have it good or bad, will ever get out of this life unscathed.
When we first meet A.A. Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson), he is a World War I veteran and a noted playwright, and it doesn’t take long to see the damage war has done to him as he repeatedly suffers from flashbacks every time a loud sound goes off or a balloon pops near him. He and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), have just become the parents of a baby boy, but it is shown to have been a difficult birth which almost killed Daphne. They name their son Christopher Robin Milne, and for a time there is a bit of a distance between father and son. Just watch as Gleeson picks up his baby for the first time. The audience I saw this movie with couldn’t help but laugh at what they saw.
Once the family moves to a house out in the woods, A.A. begins work on an anti-war book as he feels London is still suffering long after “the war to end all wars” was concluded. However, he suffers from writer’s block and finds himself in the same position William Shakespeare was in while he was trying to write “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” in “Shakespeare in Love.” He is determined to write one kind of story, but he eventually comes to write a completely different one.
Seeing A.A. and Christopher come up with the characters for the Winnie-The-Pooh stories feels wonderfully organic as does their growing relationship. After Daphne disappears from the family for a time, father and son are forced to deal with one another in ways they didn’t anticipate. The porridge Milne makes for Christopher does not look the least big appetizing, but it serves as an ice breaker between the two as the distance between them decreases until they find themselves truly enjoying the imaginary world they have created for themselves.
From there, I figured “Goodbye Christopher Robin” was going to be a simple tale of father and son coming together in a wonderfully unique way, but then the focus shifts. We see the Winnie-The-Pooh books become a literary sensation to where the public cannot separate Christopher Robin Milne from the fictional character of Christopher Robin. As a result, this young boy is suddenly thrust into a spotlight no one can ever easily deal with, and the film almost turns into a horror flick as we know this will do irreparable damage to him. While some may consider him to be the luckiest boy alive, it becomes apparent his life is no longer his. Christopher should be allowed to have a childhood, but his parents don’t realize they have denied him this in time.
What surprised me about “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is how it is a biopic which cannot be boiled down to one sentence. This film is not just about the creation of a literary classic filled with characters who remain very popular to this day, but also one which deals with a multitude of themes, each of which is given a lot of meaning and depth. None of the real-life characters featured here are painted in an easily broad manner, and their evolution throughout was never less than fascinating to me.
Domhnall Gleeson has since created a name for himself outside of his father’s, Brendan Gleeson, success as an actor to where it is easy to separate the two of them. Domhnall has given terrific performances in “About Time” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and he does superb work here as a famous writer whose creations eventually take on a life of their own. At this movie’s start, he portrays A.A. Milne as a man traumatized by his experiences in war and slow to warm up to his role as a father, and he fully inhabits this man to where you can never catch him acting. Gleeson makes A.A. a wonderfully complex human being as he becomes more receptive to the world Christopher has created for himself, and he shows how this famous author quickly gets caught up in his book’s success to where he feels obligated to make his son a celebrity figure despite his growing concerns of what this will do to him. Although he eventually comes to see the damage he is doing, this realization comes too late, and he is left to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship which may never be fully repaired.
Robbie, who burst into our collective consciousness with her scene-stealing role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” has an even trickier role to play here as Daphne de Sélincourt is shown to be both a loving mother and a very needful wife. You want to berate her for using her son to get a level of attention she might not otherwise receive, but there is no doubt as to the love she has for him. Daphne also provides the voices for Christopher’s stuffed animals to where A.A.’s cannot compete in the slightest, so her presence in Christopher’s life still has a tremendous amount of influence. Whatever you may think of Daphne, Robbie makes her into an individual who is undeniably flawed but still a loving mother.
One performance worth singling out above others in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is Kelly Macdonald’s as Olive, Christopher’s beloved nanny. While Christopher’s parents get caught up in the fame these stories have brought about, Macdonald shows how Olive is thankfully objective to where she is never easily seduced by forces which have easily seduced many others away from a normal, ordinary life. She understands better than anyone how Christopher is being subjected to something very unhealthy for him, and she does her best to make his parents see how they need to see to remove them from the public eye.
And yes, Will Tilson makes a wonderful Christopher Robin Milne and shares a lot of great scenes with Gleeson.
As “Goodbye Christopher Robin” came to its conclusion, I came to realize how it was about the long and rough path towards happiness. We all want to be happy in our lives, but happiness is not as easy to come by as we are lead to believe when we were young. While some may complain about the exceptions made to historical fact, I loved how this film built up to an exhilarating point as Christopher comes to make peace with his dad to where he realizes what it means to be a happy person. The path to happiness is never a straight line or an easy road to travel, and the fact this biopic truly understands this fact is something I am very thankful for as its path still remains a torturous one for me after all these years.
Simon Curtis has directed a few biographical films previously (“My Week with Marilyn” and “Woman in Gold”), but he really outdoes himself here. In a time when biopics range from excellent (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Love & Mercy”) to incredibly disappointing (“I Saw the Light”), “Goodbye Christopher Robin” thankfully ends up on the positive side of the critical spectrum.