Goodbye Christopher Robin is a biopic that explores the unsavory origins behind Winnie-the-Pooh, the beloved children’s book series. Though solemn and sharp in its depiction of A.A. Milne’s relationship with his son, Goodbye Christopher Robin doesn’t quite succeed in balancing its reverence for childhood with its narrative flaws.
The film opens with Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) having recently returned from fighting in World War I. The former playwright suffers from recurring symptoms of PTSD, and possesses a bleak outlook on his wartime experiences. From the get-go, viewers are subjected to a flurry of short scenes that take place over a period of several years. Christopher Robin is born and a nanny is hired to take care of him. Plagued by shell shock, Milne moves his family to the Sussex woods to find inspiration for his writing. Even then, he continually struggles to form a fatherly connection with his young son, and when his wife and the nanny leave for three weeks, he finds himself playing with Christopher for the first time. These outdoor romps serve as inspiration for the Pooh books, which become international bestsellers. However, the massive influx of fame that ensues leads Milne to use his son to relentlessly promote his books at the expense of their budding relationship. In the last quarter of the film, we are treated to a sober image of Christopher as a young man, enlisting in the army during World War II to escape the enduring image that his father had cast of him: as a small boy who plays make-believe with stuffed animals.
The reality of Milne and Christopher’s relationship is less idyllic than the children’s books, as expected, but the way the film approaches its subject matter feels perfunctory. Many of the impactful scenes are rushed through – Milne’s time in the trenches, Daphne essentially abandoning her husband and son to attend parties in London, and Christopher’s experiences being bullied in boarding school, are reduced to passing visual sequences. Nor is it ever explained why Christopher’s parents are willing to exchange their son’s happiness for fame and fortune. The result is a biopic which lacks much of the emotional impact behind its otherwise compelling story. Without fully conveying the postwar circumstances that led to their present behavior, many of the main characters simply come off as immature, self-centered, or just plain unlikable.
This is not to say that the film is without its merits. Even if the Milne parents are frustratingly distant in their interactions with their son, the relationship between Christopher and his nanny Olive is heartwarming and refreshingly honest amidst the stuffiness of 1920s England. Fans of Winnie the Pooh will enjoy the shout-outs to memorable aspects of the novels, like the game of Poohsticks, or the strategy of using balloons to reach a beehive. Seeing Christopher Robin in a military uniform, berating his father for treating his childhood as research for a novel, is particularly striking, and these scenes of adult Christopher compose arguably the highest points of the film.
All in all, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a clean-cut biographical drama. It succeeds in unveiling the true story behind the Winnie-the-Pooh books, but may have benefited from lingering more on certain implications of their success and a longer run time.