Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin
Simon Curtis takes us back to 100 Acre Wood where we can explore the semi-melancholy landscape that gave birth to A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and a particularly troubled father-son relationship
Goodbye Christopher Robin
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Alex Lawther
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Running time: 1 hr 57 mins
Rating: Parental Guidance
By Katherine Monk
“It’s more fun to talk to someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?’”
Winnie-the-Pooh always found a straight line to wisdom. Yet, his creator, Alan Alexander Milne, was undeniably complex. A humorist and playwright who never craved the company of children, Milne was a rising star in a grown-up world until the Great War razed his expectations.
Injured in the line of duty and psychologically damaged from his experience in the trenches, Milne returned home without any real desire to write anything except pacifist tracts condemning the cruelty of war.
Aloof and irritable, Milne was a far cry from the children’s hero we’ve come to know through Winnie-the-Pooh. About as upbeat and optimistic as Eeyore, Milne had to fight for happy thoughts — as well as a face he could present to his young son.
Though Milne and his wife Daphne christened him Christopher Robin, they called him Billy Moon. They also dressed him up in girl’s clothing because that’s all they bought, believing the belly bump would reveal a baby girl.
He was a decidedly different kind of kid who grew up alone. Save for the company of his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), Billy Moon’s only social group comprised of the many stuffed animals gifted to him by his guilt-ridden parents.
Daphne was the first to give them a voice and create narratives, but it was Milne who eventually put it all down on paper. Accompanied by illustrations from an old trench-mate and Punch Magazine artist, Winnie-the-Pooh was born — first as a magazine poem in 1924, and later as the full-fledged property with the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926.
The books were an immediate smash in Britain, where Beatrix Potter had already laid the groundwork before the war with her Peter Rabbit stories. Talking woodland creatures with pronounced personalities were popular, but Milne pushed the form with Pooh.
Within the cozy narratives about honey and tea, friendship and favours, lies a certain malaise. The best kids books seem to possess this dislocated wisp of depression because the whole children’s experience is defined by the looming loss of innocence. Even kids know they’re going to grow up and move into the world of adulthood, where magical tea parties are crushed by the weight of responsibility.
Milne was all too aware of the evils awaiting his young son, and as a result, the stories of Christopher Robin and Pooh feel like a magical spell — a highly concentrated dose of whimsy and good will that might fight off the lurking forces of doubt and destruction.
There’s a stillness in the books, a sense of fighting the advances of time inside a melancholy womb of comfort and safety. It’s all beautiful. It’s also all steeped in denial.
Goodbye Christopher Robin gives us all the insight into why Winnie-the-Pooh has such a distinct emotional tenor and sometimes feels like Albert Camus for kids. It taps into Milne’s traumatized psyche, ravaged by memories of war and uncertain of the future. More importantly, it takes us into the private life of the real Christopher Robin — a sad little boy without friends, forever seeking a true loving relationship.
Domhnall Gleeson disappears once more into a role that’s not all that flattering, but even within this portrayal of a grumpy patriarch he finds something empathetic and achey that moves beyond the boundaries of standard biopic.
Margot Robbie’s Daphne isn’t all that likeable either, but she accepts the truth of her character as a fun-loving socialite who enjoyed the fame Winnie-the-Pooh afforded.
Because both parents are a far cry from 21st century helicopters, they feel a little neglectful by today’s standards. There is no godlike force asserting itself, holding the universe in place, and it’s this curious absence of the consistent that defines the world of Christopher Robin: He’s a little boy at the foot of his bed, curled up small. Nobody knows that he’s there at all.
Young talent Will Tilston could break your heart as the young Billy Moon, but director Simon Curtis tells his story without cinematic flourish or saccharine sentiment, resulting in a decisively sober take on childhood magic. Honestly, it’s all a tad sad — but that’s the beauty of Pooh: He acknowledged the sadness of life, but he focused on the honey.
THE EX-PRESS, October 20, 2017