clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin,’ harsh themes a bit of a bother

A.A. Milne (Domnhall Gleeson) and his son (Will Tilston) make up stories about a sensitive bear in “Goodbye Christopher Robin.” | FOX SEARCHLIGHT

The trailer for “Goodbye Christopher Robin” contains sun-dappled visuals of a lush forest and a sparkling stream, glimpses of stuffed animals with names such as Eeyore and Piglet, and a father with a warm smile telling his son, “We’re having fun AND we’re writing a book.”

Yes indeed, the father is one A.A. Milne, creator of “Winnie the Pooh,” and the little boy is called “Billy Moon” by his parents but has the Christian name of Christopher Robin.

The narrator tells us after a great war, it was as if nobody could remember how to have fun again — until Milne shared Christopher Robin and Pooh with the world.

“And then, just a like a tap you’ve turned on, happiness came pouring out,” says the narrator.

You’d think this is a sweet live-action fairy tale about one of the most beloved children’s fiction characters of all time.

You’d be wrong.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a film of rough edges and jagged twists, at times beautiful to behold but more often shot in jarring close-ups that make Christopher Robin’s parents look like the villains in a gothic horror film. It is filled with repeated audio cheap tricks, with everything from an unleashed champagne cork to popping balloons to a backfiring car triggering severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reactions from Milne.

At one point Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and the young Christopher are in the woods when a swarm of bees cause Milne to recoil in horror at the memory of the flies buzzing about in the trenches. He gets lost in a flashback to the horrific 1916 Battle of Somme, terrifies his boy and comes very close to physically harming the child.

That’s one rough journey to Pooh Corner.

Not for a moment is my intent to make light of the very real terrors of PTSD, or to minimize what Milne reportedly experienced in the aftermath of “the war to end all wars,” which did nothing of the kind. It’s just that “Goodbye Christopher Robin” tries to straddle the line between a whimsical origins story about the beloved Pooh et al., and a harsh character study about unlikable adults who are far better at exploiting a child than loving him.

Director Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”) and the screenwriters place the focus on Milne, who returns from the war, finds London society life unbearable and drags his shallow, ever-complaining, party-loving wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) and their young son Billy (Will Tilston) to a remote country home in East Sussex, which is surrounded by a vibrant forest cut with winding paths and wooden bridges and a gentle stream.

As written, Robbie’s Daphne is an unbearable nag, and the performance doesn’t help. Even when Daphne takes a break from whining to play with Billy and give voice to his stuffed animals, she sounds manic and self-absorbed.

After Daphne storms back to London, with no word on when she’ll return, the kindly nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald, the brogue-voiced narrator of the trailer) continues on as a loving mother figure to Billy — but then Olive must leave, and now it’s just Milne and the son he’s barely spoken to in the first years of the boy’s life.

This leads to the most endearing section of “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” with Milne and son and the boy’s stuffed animals embarking on adventures of the imagination in the woods, which eventually inspires Milne to take pen to paper.

But things get nasty again when “Winnie the Pooh” becomes a global sensation, and the world demands to meet “the real Christopher Robin,” and both A.A. and his wife trot their boy around as a prop, oblivious to how much harm they’re inflicting.

Little wonder when we flash forward to Christopher at age 18 (now played by Alex Lawther), he’s seething with resentment, having lived in a fishbowl as a boy and now spending his teen years being bullied and tormented by classmates, once they find out the new kid named Billy is actually Christopher Robin.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” tries to put a bow on the package at the end, with the icy and self-centered Daphne finally showing a trace of heart (but only when she thinks her son has been killed in action), and scenes of Milne and Christopher hashing out the past.

It doesn’t quite ring true, maybe in part because we know in real life, Christopher never really forgave his parents. He refused to take a dime of royalties from any Winnie the Pooh-related books or merchandise or adaptations. He was never close with his father — and he didn’t speak once to his mother during the last 15 years of her life.

Like a tap that was turned on, the sadness and anger never stopped pouring out.

★★

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Simon Curtis and written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language). Running time: 119 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.