If you have a toddler, or there’s one in the family, there is a very good chance a stuffed Winnie the Pooh is in his or her bedroom, perhaps lodged between a Tigger and an Eeyore. These are the Disney-fied versions of A.A. Milne’s beloved characters.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” never mentions Disney, nor should it; it’s a film about the inspiration for and creation of Winnie and the Hundred Acre Wood stories, post-World War I.
In fact, it’s a surprisingly somber affair. There’s an admirably dark undercurrent that makes “Goodbye” a bit more diverting than period origin tales like “Finding Neverland.”
It’s also slow-moving, prone to melodrama, and at times clumsily directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”). But when it works, it works quite nicely.
After an opening set during World War II, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” moves back in time to the first World War. Playwright A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) survived his time in battle, but he did not emerge unscathed. Back in London society with his fun-loving wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), Milne was haunted by his past.
Milne’s anguish is difficult on his wife, and also hurts his written output. The arrival of a baby does not help. However, Christopher Robin Milne, the little boy who was known to his family as Billy Moon, would eventually inspire his father’s greatest success.
Before then, young Billy (the adorable Will Tilston) is something of an albatross for his parents. Indeed, he shares a much closer relationship with his loving nanny, Olive (Kelly MacDonald, "Trainspotting") than with either of his parents.
It is during a time in which both Daphne and Olive are away from home that father and son began to forge a unique bond. Together, they create a little world for Billy’s stuffed animals — including a bear, a donkey, a tiger and a wee pig; a mother-and-son kangaroo arrive later.
Unable to make progress on a book about the concept of world peace, Milne begins to see the literary possibility of these figures. After some help from his illustrator, the world of Winnie the Pooh begins to take shape.
These scenes, in which Milne and son explore their imaginations in the sun-drenched English countryside, are the loveliest and most engaging in the film. Whatever its flaws, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” captures something special about the role of storytelling as a bonding mechanism between parent and child.
Once published, Winnie becomes an international sensation. And the world is especially enamored with “the real Christopher Robin.” It’s an uneasy situation for little Billy, and the long-term impact is enormously negative.
The rest of the film is rather dreary, and the ending is particularly heavy on the melodrama. Many will find the final stretch moving; I found much of it amateurish.
The performances are uniformly excellent, and that includes Tilston as Billy. It’s also another high for Domhnall Gleeson ("Brooklyn"). He finds the right mix of vulnerability and ego, and his transition to devoted parent is clear.
Robbie has a much more difficult role. Daphne is presented as little more than a sour wife and inattentive mother, and the gifted Robbie does her best. But this is a tremendously unappealing character, and the actress deserves better. It’s one of the reasons the film is only a semi-success.
Chances are audiences won’t remember that Robbie and Gleeson were even in “Goodbye Christopher Robin.” What they’ll remember is the sadness of the life of Billy Moon. Prepare, then, to enter the theater feeling like Winnie, and leave it feeling like Eeyore.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin”
3 stars (out of 4)
Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Alex Lawther and Phoebe Waller-Bridge star in story of author A.A. Milne and the creation of his "Winnie the Pooh" stories inspired by his son. 107 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language.