A.A. Milne created something that has enchanted generations of children with Winnie-the-Pooh. The popular children’s stories have lived on for decades in books and animated children’s programming. Now the story of how that honey-loving bear came to be is the subject of its own film, Goodbye Christopher Robin, from director Simon Curtis. There’s little enchantment in this tedious piece of Oscar bait as it fails to bring the true story behind the pages into a compelling story on the screen despite plenty of interesting elements to the story. The only tears that Goodbye Christopher Robin can muster are those that come when trying to fight off nestling into the cozy recesses of a deep sleep.
After opening in 1941 with a tease as to how this story might end, Goodbye Christopher Robin takes the viewer into the trenches of World War I as A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is haunted by the decaying corpses rotting in the mud. In a flash, he’s transported back into civilization and an elegant black tie ball alongside his beautiful wife Daphne (Margot Robbie). Through it all, the horrors of war linger in his brain. Assimilating back into life after war has been a difficult task with certain sounds triggering horrific flashbacks. Soon the Milne family welcomes a child into their family, Christopher Robin whom the family will call Billy Moon. To handle their social obligations and care for their child, the Milnes hire a nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), affectionately known as Nou. But life in the city wears upon A.A. and he soon takes him family off to the countryside where he can find peace and quiet and return to his work writing.
In the country, A.A. Milne plans on writing his tome against war but finds himself incapable of committing words to the page. When Olive’s mother falls ill and Daphne grows tired of A.A.’s writer’s block, the father and his young son (played at age 8 by Will Tilston) are left to their own devices. Over their time together, A.A. finds inspiration in his child’s stuffed animals and rampant imagination, something that will lay the groundwork for the iconic children’s character and his companions. The success of the subsequent book leaves a bit of a strain on the young Christopher Robin who must contend with interview requests and newfound celebrity for being the namesake of the young boy who interacts with the cartoon bear.
The biggest obstacle that Goodbye Christopher Robin can’t overcome is its scattershot approach to the story. It’s a movie that’s not quite sure what it wants to focus on so it bounces around from topic to topic without any cohesion tying them together. At once it wants to be an examination on the PTSD that A.A. Milne obviously suffered from in the wake of World War I. But it also wants to focus on the disinterested parenting of A.A. and Daphne and how they allowed their nanny to do much of the heavy lifting. Finally, it also want to examine just how the unwanted fame from the books affected the young Milne. It’s tragic just how ineffective each of these story threads are and how quickly the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan moves away from them.
Despite its impressive cast, Goodbye Christopher Robin gives its actors little to work with. Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie, both excellent actors, are miscast in the biopic. The film takes great pains to avoid giving Robbie’s Daphne much characterization beyond her snobby entitlement. Gleeson tries his best with the mood swings required in this version of A.A. Milne but the film fails to bring the character to much life beyond the surface. That’s a problem that’s encountered in every aspect of Goodbye Christopher Robin – it’s only the surface. Compounding matters is the performance by young Will Tilston, who through no fault of his own gives a particularly grating child performance; however, the young actor becomes tiresome because of how much weight is put upon the child’s shoulders in the clunky script.
Briefly towards the conclusion of the film, we’re introduced to an older Christopher Robin (Alex Lawther), who has been tormented through his youth because of his connection to the children’s stories. Wanting to shun his reputation, the young man volunteers for the armed service during World War II despite the protestations of his parents. It really exemplifies just how unfocused the storytelling is in the film as this section of the film pretty much takes place in the last 15 minutes, meaning that the dramatic weight of his character’s namesake will have to be resolved in a hurry.
Goodbye Christopher Robin makes the mistake that so many would-be prestige pictures make in attempting to cram the entire story of a life into a condensed package, failing to realize that focusing on a single aspect can make for a much more effective and satisfying movie. Goodbye Christopher Robin is a PTSD drama, a Winnie-the-Pooh origin story, a father and son drama, and a generic historical biopic; none of which are particularly effective because it’s unable to decide which is going to the heart of the story. There’s a good movie buried somewhere within the cluttered mess of Goodbye Christopher Robin, but Simon Curtis and company didn’t take the time to figure out which story they wanted to tell.