This is one Winnie-the-Pooh story that’s not for little kids.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a sobering look at the life of the real little boy who inspired his father A.A. Milne’s beloved children’s books, only to find himself loved by the world but neglected by his parents. It’s a true story that’s an often sad one, and attempts to lighten it with flashes of poetic whimsy to convey the magic of Milne’s stories end up cheapening it.
A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who everyone calls Blue, returns home after serving in World War I with PTSD and a bitterness at humanity for allowing such a war to happen. His socialite wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) insists that her husband just needs to forget that nasty war and think happy thoughts, but that’s hardly a remedy.
When the couple have a child, young Christopher (newcomer Alex Tiltson), they seem almost indifferent to him, jetting off on long vacations and letting the child grow up in the arms of his much more nurturing nanny (Kelly MacDonald). It’s hard to know how much of their emotionally distant approach to parenting was part of their nature, and how much was endemic to upper-class British society at that time.
The family retreats to a quiet country house away from London so Milne can try and get some work done. Young Christopher, who prefers to be called Billy Moon, is initially an annoyance to his father, but when the two are unexpectedly left alone for a few days, they bond over long walks in the woods.
There are lots of scenes where we see Christopher playing with his stuffed bear or donkey, imagining adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, and his father getting that “Aha!” look in his eyes. It’s a little obvious, but the chemistry between Gleeson and Tiltson is affecting, even if the dry, distant Milne comes off more like a fond uncle than a father.
In a whirlwind montage, we see Milne’s books capture the imagination of a world still recovering from war and looking for warmth and escapism. But that success comes at a huge cost to his son, who is paraded around as “the real Christopher Robin” in interviews and public appearances. In one heartbreaking scene, we see Milne call his son from America to wish him happy birthday, only to discover the phone call is a stunt being broadcast on the radio.
It’s bold that Gleeson and Robbie play such unlikable, damaged parents, but that also makes it hard to root for this family to heal. Mostly we want Christopher’s nanny to steal him away. Things get even more dire when Christopher grows into an angry, resentful young man (Alex Lawther), who sees Winnie-the-Pooh as a curse. He’s even willing to enlist in the next world war, just so people will call him Private Milne rather than Christopher Robin.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is rated PG, and the trailer includes enough of the whimsical scenes in the film to make it look like an endearing family film. It’s not. It’s slow paced and morose, with a manipulative attempt at a heartwarming ending that feels unearned. While older kids who have long outgrown “House at Pooh Corner” might be interested in the tragic events behind the book, younger kids may find the magic of the original stories tarnished by the truth behind the words.