The history of the globally beloved Winnie the Pooh books and Disney adaptations is a cautionary tale of fame and how it tore a family apart. While it’s vaguely known that author A.A. Milne and his son grew to resent the stories they created, Goodbye Christopher Robin dramatizes the story behind the creation and later the consequences of putting Winnie the Pooh and friends out into the world. Domhnall Gleeson portrays Milne throughout the author’s life after coming back from WWI. Milne was deeply affected and unable to write or acclimate to city life after he and wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) give birth to their son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston). Upset that they didn’t have a girl, the family chooses to refer to their child as Billy Moon (after he couldn’t pronounce Milne) and Daphne insists on dressing him in smocks which give some backstory to the animosity between mother and son later in life.
Billy was mostly raised by his nanny Olive (Kelly MacDonald), while his mother would travel to the city from their countryside home where his father would try to break his writer’s block without interruption. Billy lived contently playing games with his guardian companion. We see the moments when his mother brings back a bear, accompanied by his animal friends, and the games Billy plays with them around the house that would later serve as inspiration when his father is left to tend to Billy while his nanny and mother were in the city. Gleeson portrays Milne with a steeliness that gets broken down into nurturing warmth by the child talent of Tilston who is a wonder as little Billy while giving off echoes of the character he would later be immortalized as. You see it when Milne invites his friend and illustrator Ernest (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Billy to walk to the tree where Owl lives. The film does a marvelous job of immersing and investing you in those moments of childlike wonder that were captured at a time where it was needed. You could say that in times like these, heartfelt moments like that are still needed and speak to the timelessness of the stories that Milne would write about his son’s adventures that later were published by his mother sparking an international sensation.
The tragic nature of the story unfolds as Billy loses the moments he had with his father to a publicity tour when press find out that Billy himself is the inspiration behind the boy everyone relates to. It’s heartbreaking to see Tilston’s turn as he portrays a boy whose joy in life and identity gets stripped away as he clings to the only person who understands him. MacDonald imbues Olive with warmth and fight as she challenges the Milnes when she realizes that Billy’s childhood is being robbed from him. You feel for her as she desperately tries to protect Billy while Margot Robbie’s cold indifference to her child’s needs as Daphne is a frightening portrait of an early “stage mom”. Think Kris Jenner and the Dance Mom ilk, but in the early 1900’s.
It pains you when Christopher loses his only friend at the height of the Pooh frenzy and the Milnes bask in the fame bled out from their kid. And you agonize along with Olive but also feel a bit like throwing out all your Pooh things once you realize the cost and consequence of it! There’s an emotional confrontation between Olive and A.A. Milne that finally shakes some sense into Billy’s father but at that point, there was no escaping Christopher Robin for Billy. Resolving to put him in school to focus on his studies seemed to be a good idea but we see what happens when Billy’s schoolmates find out who he is and what it does to him during crucial years of development.
It’s upsetting to watch and you can’t help but feel complicit in the same sort of cycles of today’s consuming media. There’s a point in the film where an older Billy, set on going to war, reminds his father that he has wanted the Pooh stories written for him but that he gave what was theirs to the world. (Bizarrely enough, I found some parallels in this to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!)
The last act of the film from director Simon Curtis builds up to what happens when Billy goes off to war and how it affected those close to him when they realized that he felt the need to make a name for himself outside of the shadow of Christopher Robin. It’s cathartic and emotional but overall the film creatively shines a light on this true story and the nature of artistic endeavors. It’s amazing how something you love so much could have deeply affected those it came from.
While there are some pacing issues in the first act, once we get into the interactions that are the bedrock of Winnie the Pooh, we’re all in. The film delivers a satisfying glimpse into the lives of a family that went through the unimaginable horror of war twice. They also gave to the world an essential piece of literature that would go on as timeless stories that help make the world a little better while teaching us to be conscious and to not take fanaticism too far.
The film premieres in select cities including New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Toronto and Washington DC on October 13.