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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Veteran’s Day. The eleventh day of the eleventh month, to mark the armistice that ended the first world war. Which makes today’s choice uncommonly fitting.

Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the story of Great War veteran A.A. Milne (inexplicably nicknamed “Blue”, here immortalized by Domhnall Gleeson). Of course Milne is more famous as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, and that is very much a central focus of the film. But as portrayed in the movie, there are two pivotal catalysts for the creation of Winnie the Pooh, and one of them is Milne’s time in the trenches of the Somme.

Milne is wracked with PTSD from start to finish, and there’s no telling what could potentially trigger a flashback to those hellish torments he’s witnessed. Moreover, he can’t bring himself to come back to London and write trivial stage comedies like nothing happened. He really does want this to be The War to End All Wars, he wants his service — and all those who died beside him — to be remembered, and he wants his time on the battlefield to matter, dammit! So Milne goes with his wife (Daphne, played by Margot Robbie) and their toddler son (nicknamed “Billy Moon”, played primarily by Will Tilston) to live out in the quiet countryside, away from the noise of London, so Milne can try and write something to stop all wars.

Trouble is that for obvious reasons, nobody wants to read about war right now. And Milne himself can’t get his thoughts together in any kind of coherent way, or in any manner that anyone would want to read. (“BEEN THERE!” said every writer ever.) So Milne procrastinates by going for walks in the woods, while his son insists on tagging along. Which brings me to the second big catalyst.

Billy (nobody who knows him ever actually calls him Christoper Robin) shows a vivid imagination, the crystal-clear innocence of youth, and a compulsive need to play. All of this lends a new perspective to Milne’s flashbacks and traumatic memories. His horrible times in the trenches are filtered through Billy’s mindset, becoming adventures and discoveries. For an extra measure of distance, the boy’s own stuffed animals are used as a substitute for wild beasts and dangerous monsters.

So it is that Milne escapes the terrors of war and Billy spends time with his father as the both of them play with stuffed animals in the woods. This provides the inspiration needed for Winnie the Pooh to be written and published to worldwide and ongoing acclaim.

But then the movie keeps going.

Young Christopher Robin is thrown into the spotlight before he even really knows what’s going on. The noise and bustle of London has spilled over into his quiet country home. His parents are touring all over the world. The boy’s literary alter ego has supplanted the real thing, and his childhood fantasies are no longer his own. Basically, it’s the classic theme of celebrity status and the price paid for fame and fortune, but it’s something else entirely when the subject is a young boy who never wanted any of that and has no idea what to do with it. What’s more, there’s the matter of where fiction ends and real life begins. Trying to separate the fictional characters from their real-life counterparts becomes so much trickier and more important when we’re talking about a young boy still trying to figure out who he is and how to become his own man.

(Side note: Christopher Robin Milne would later go on to marry his first cousin. Just thought I’d mention that, since the movie doesn’t.)

Oh, and last but not least, the world was kind of a shitty place at that point in time. Recovering from one war and going into the next, who could blame those in desperate need of something to celebrate? Hell, giving the people of the world an innovative dose of childlike whimsy was probably the greatest act of pacifism that Milne could ever have done. For when everything has gone wrong and the terrors of the adult world have set in, there is definitely shelter to be found in the nostalgic memories of childhood. Milne and his son gave the world their own nostalgic shelter, even as it meant giving away something (probably the only thing) that only the two of them had together.

Domhnall Gleeson turns in a career-best performance, going through a wide and punishing gauntlet of emotions throughout the running time. Will Tilston also proves himself to be a fine young actor, and the two of them together are really what make the film as good as it is. Kudos are also due to Kelly Macdonald, who does outstanding work as Billy’s nurse. She is truly Billy’s rock through all the craziness that happens, and it’s a role that Macdonald was perfectly suited for. I was also very fond of Stephen Campbell Moore as E.H. Shepard, the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh. He’s another Great War veteran, so he and Milne are of crucial assistance in helping each other through their flashbacks, and the film comes truly alive when he joins Milne and son out in the woods. Damn shame the film makes such little use of him.

The weak link, alas, is Margot Robbie. I was very disappointed to see Daphne treated like a superficial Mama Rose after we had seen so many hints of something deeper. Early in the film, she’s clearly distraught at having a son when it means that he’ll eventually go off to war and she’s stuck waiting in terror at home, like what happened with her Blue. There’s also a throwaway line early on in which Daphne talks about how her little Billy will always be a boy and never grow up. Put together, this raises the possibility that Daphne is putting her own son out into the world, keeping her son in the spotlight so he’ll always be Christopher Robin. On some subconscious level, she wants him to stay safe and to be a little boy playing with his stuffed animals forever. This is a potentially fascinating layer to the character, and it goes completely untapped. Damn shame.

And so long as we’re dwelling on nitpicks, I’m sorry to say that the film can get way too sappy and slow for its own good. The opening sequence alone was so insufferably melodramatic that I nearly checked out of the film before it even began. The first act only gets by due to the strength of Milne’s PTSD, and the third act (when Christopher Robin is an adult, played by Alex Lawther) is nowhere near as compelling as what came before. It’s not very often that the second act is the best part of a movie, but it’s absolutely true that the film is at its best when it’s just A.A. Milne and his son exploring the woods of their country home.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a sweet little movie. Granted, a couple of the performances are kinda flawed and the filmmakers lean heavily on melodrama when they don’t know how else to make a scene compelling. Still, the portrayal of traumatized veterans is masterfully done, the depiction of Winnie the Pooh’s creation is endearing, and the Gleeson/Tilston interplay is worth the price of admission by itself.

Not exactly must-see material, but definitely worth checking out.

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