Like Finding Neverland and Saving Mr. Banks, Goodbye Christopher Robin reveals the backstory of and inspirations for a classic of children’s literature. And similar to those films, it relies on saccharine sentimentality to play off of the audience’s attachment to the original property around which it revolves.
Each reveal of the genesis behind one of A.A. Milne’s (Domhnall Gleeson) beloved Winnie the Pooh characters is carefully constructed to warm the cockles of the heart not through any dramatic prowess on the part of the film, but by manipulatively playing to what it perceives as our desire for the comforts of the familiar and recognizable. This extensive focus on the mundane roots of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger gives way to a plodding, literal-minded journey through the relationship between Milne and his son, Christopher Robin Milne (Will Tilston)—a journey that contains no trace of the simple, fantastical charms of the author’s most famous works.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is often bathetic, but its most glaring faults lie in its extreme structural imbalance. The overstuffed middle section of Simon Curtis’s film accounts for the copious amounts of time spent introducing us to Winnipeg, or “Winnie,” a black bear that lives at the London Zoo, and the casual wordplay between Christopher and his father that led to the origin of the names Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore while pushing the narrative’s heftier themes to the periphery. This engenders the trite, undeveloped depictions of both Milne’s PTSD following his return from World War I and, later, Christopher’s struggles growing up after his brief but substantial moment of fame made his name ubiquitous in the United Kingdom.
Goodbye Christopher Robin spends its opening act belaboring Milne’s inability to write while barely delving into the psychological damage that triggered his writer’s block. Milne’s wartime trauma is reduced to a few brief flashbacks and glimpses of his recurring habit of twitching or jumping at any loud sound. And though the film sees Milne as a fierce pacifist with a resolute desire to write an antiwar novel (he would eventually publish the nonfiction Peace with Honour in 1934), it’s too timid to explore his inner demons with much depth. The filmmakers instead shift the focus onto Milne’s wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and her frustration with her husband’s artistic stagnancy, as well as to Christopher, or “Billy Moon,” who eventually broke through his father’s harsh exterior and inspired him to write the Winnie the Pooh poems and stories with the help of illustrator E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore).
Although it features a handful of touching moments between Christopher and both his father and nanny, Nou (Kelly MacDonald), mostly due to a surprisingly assured, emotionally rich performance by Tilston, the film unfortunately lingers on the tedious build up to the release of 1926’s Winnie-the-Pooh, only to rush through the more intriguing story of Christopher Robin’s brush with fame and the resultant fallout. Christopher was flooded with fan mail and, against the advice of his beloved Nou, was also forced to spend hours every day giving interviews and making public appearances. Over the years, the strain of his accidental fame leads Christopher, now 18 and played Alex Lawther, to hold a grudge against his parents and to curse the fictional namesake that cast an unrelenting shadow over his life, leading to his being bullied and eventually enlisting in the army so as to seek anonymity.
A sweet ode to childhood innocence turning sour upon its introduction to the public is an intriguing notion, but Curtis incomprehensibly crams the events of Christopher’s early childhood stardom, his difficulty coping with the ubiquity of his namesake’s legacy, and his ultimate defiance of his father into less than one-third of the film. This scramble to impart an abundance of crucial narrative information dilutes the scenes’ emotional impact and cheapens Christopher’s emotional arc. The abruptness with which this tonal and temporal shift arrives further negates the weight of his tortured teen years by countering them with an ending that’s too clean and uncomplicated for the years of suffering that the film just finished glossing over. Goodbye Christopher Robin purports to divulging the darker side of Milne and his son’s experiences but remains too eager to return to feel-good pablum to linger on painful moments long enough to reveal anything but the sting left behind.