Wrecking Your Childhood: A 'Goodbye Christopher Robin' Film Review
by Will Lindus
While Hollywood historically has no shortage of biopics about famous authors and artists, films which explore the men and the women and the formative experiences behind the quills have become a common staple of the awards season lineup in recent years. These films have a reputation for being stodgy, stoic affairs that maintain a stiff upper lip through dramatic sequences before succumbing to emotionally manipulative story beats. Goodbye Christopher Robin assuredly falls in this same category, and yet despite its familiarity within the genre, is still a quite rewarding watch.
The film follows author A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), having recently returned from World War I where he served in the British Army. Upon his arrival home, the playwright finds intensified bouts of PTSD and his burgeoning anti-war sentiments have impeded his ability to concentrate and to create, so he moves the countryside with his reluctant wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), his doe-eyed son C.R. Milne (Will Tilston), and their son’s nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). It is in the woods behind the countryside home where Milne uses his son’s stuffed animals as the inspiration for what would become one of the most influential children’s books of all time, Winnie-The-Pooh.
Perhaps a bit too ambitious in its scope, Goodbye Christopher Robin seeks to tackle an entire epoch of Milne’s life, dipping into themes of PTSD, pacifism, creative depression, relationship instability, the burdens of failure, the even higher price of success, and the unrepairable fractures that can be caused by a jaded childhood. The film is at its best when it explores these themes, though it doesn’t often get enough time to fully develop these themes. Most rewarding, if heartbreaking, is the exploration of young C.R. Milne, whose childhood becomes co-opted into becoming the model for the world of Winnie-The-Pooh.
As the book becomes more successful, more and more children around the world are able to live vicariously through the book, but in doing so, they rob C.R. of experiences personal. Watching the young boy grow increasingly disillusioned by the adults in his life is the emotional core of this film, and that core is devastating. And, yes, some of these sequences come across a tad heavy-handed, manufacturing drama and manipulating tears. But young Will Tilston plays the role with such innocence and sincerity that this is easy to overlook, providing an emotional experience that never feels cheap even if sometimes it is.
There’s a sequence towards the middle of this film which speaks to the magic of the film and the possibility of the medium. As Milne, his son, and his illustrator friend Ernest explore the woods, the film bleeds between shots of C.R. playing with his doll and beautifully illustrated overlays, shots which only briefly appear during transition, and yet seek to bridge the day’s events to the famous book and the famous characters that would follow. This becomes tragic and bittersweet when juxtaposed against the resentment that C.R. would later feel towards his exploited childhood. By focusing on the pathos of the story, Goodbye Christopher Robin becomes something quite unexpected, something that almost (though not fully) avoids being safe and predictable.
Bottom Line: Goodbye Christopher Robin knows its subject matter, and explores the life of A.A. Milne in a way that highlights both his triumphs and his personal shortcomings. Through learning the inspiration for his infamous works and the negative consequences that his family had to subsequently endure, the legacy of the works beyond simple childhood nostalgia is enhanced. It’ll bring you to tears and it will more personally connect you to a book you undoubtedly cherished as a child; in this regard, what more can you ask for from an authorial biopic?
3.5 out of 5 Bear Paws