‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ will change how you see Winnie-the-Pooh

This handsome historical drama explores the surprising creative origins of beloved Winnie-the-Pooh.

Traditional wisdom goes it’s better not to know how the sausage is made. That’s as true for cured meats as it is for beloved children’s book characters, even honey-loving anthropomorphic teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh.

Handsome historical drama “Goodbye Christopher Robin” explores the making of that literary sausage, capturing both the magic and the agony of the creative process. Author A.A. Milne drew inspiration from his son to create a lasting work that has delighted the world for nearly a century, but the collateral damage of fame and fortune upended his child’s life.

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At what cost, art? This film isn’t sophisticated or cerebral enough to tackle that philosophical conundrum and ultimately shies away from the darkness that propels it. Still, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is an emotionally layered story about failures in parenting that gave rise to one of our most enduring joys.

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A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) draws inspiration from his son (Will Tilston) in "Goodbye Christopher Robin." (Photo: David Appleby)

Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) starts the film a broken man, a World War I vet hollowed by the atrocities he survived. A bookish and proper man, and already a writer of some renown, Milne is nearly rendered catatonic by everyday triggers: flashbulbs, backfiring cars, popping balloons.  

RELATED: 'Goodbye Christopher Robin' star Kelly Macdonald: 'Being a parent is such a difficult business'

To Milne, his PTSD is paralyzing; to wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) it’s a nuisance. A glittery society woman who flourishes in the limelight of her husband’s literary successes, Daphne has no patience for his brokenness. Bereft of easy comfort, their marriage becomes a prickly one, and stays prickly even after Daphne attempts to break the tedium with a child.

Christopher Robin, whom they whimsical call Billy Moon, is a mystery to them both – Milne holds the child stiffly away from his body like he’s a stinky diaper and Daphne can’t be bothered. They’re saved by a patient, motherly nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). For the sake of Milne’s mental health, the quartet leaves hectic London for bucolic Sussex and a country estate, surrounded by a hundred acres of verdant woods.

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In "Goodbye Christopher Robin," the real-life inspiration for literature's Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) begins to feel like a zoo animal. (Photo: Ben Smithard)

A rosy-cheeked doll of a child, Billy Moon (played as a child by Will Tilston) grows up isolated, friends only with his nanny and a menagerie of stuffed animals. There’s a teddy bear, a piglet, a donkey, a tiger, and they gradually acquire familiar names: Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger. They prove reliable friends, especially when, to Billy Moon’s considerable consternation, Daphne and Olive are drawn away from Sussex at the same time. For the first time in his life, Milne finds himself alone with his son.

It goes miserably until the writer and his young son discover the one thing they have in common: imagination. Those awkward days turn into a couple of stolen weeks, and the pair get along splendidly, playing cricket, shooting arrows, fencing, fishing and most of all exploring the surrounding woods with Billy Moon’s stuffed animals.

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A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son (Will Tilston) both have active imaginations in "Goodbye Christopher Robin." (Photo: David Appleby)

The tragedy is that Milne is merely playacting at parenthood. Once he extracts a book from the playtime, he retreats from fatherhood as research, leaving Billy Moon’s life uncomfortably altered by an adoring public desperate to get a piece of the real Christopher Robin. No longer free to be a little boy, Billy Moon begins to feel like a zoo animal.

By modern metrics the Milnes are not good parents, and there’s a welcome audacity in the film’s willingness to assert as much. For most of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” there’s no escape hatch for the Milnes, no easy salvation that makes excuse for their selfishness. Billy Moon’s is a life ruined by unwelcome fame and his parents’ exploitation of Pooh’s success. When he hits school age his misery becomes palpable, and his desperation to escape Christopher Robin threatens irreversible consequences.

It’s not quit a deus ex machina that comes to the Milnes’ rescue, but it’s close, and it makes for an unsatisfactorily forced conclusion. In spite of that last-minute narrative feint, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a moving story, told well enough to change the way you look at Winnie-the-Pooh.

Reach the reporter at bvandenburgh@gannett.com. Twitter.com/BabsVan.

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‘Goodbye Christopher Robin,’ 3.5 stars

Director: Simon Curtis.

Cast: Margot Robbie, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston.

Rating: PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language.

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