By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Well, you may not “fwoe up” as Dorothy Parker so famously wrote in her book review of “The House at Pooh Corner.”
But you might come close.
Well-intentioned as it is, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” could put a Pooh Lover off Winnie-the-Pooh permanently.
A.A. Milne’s much-loved children’s books have been required bedtime reading for generations of children (and, let’s face it, many adults). Written in the aftermath of World War I, the adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and, of course, Christopher Robin have as firm a place in classic literature as “Alice in Wonderland” or “Peter Pan.”
However, while Alice Liddell wasn’t exactly Alice and Peter Llewelyn Davies wasn’t exactly Peter Pan, Christopher Robin Milne was almost exactly the Christopher Robin of the books. After all, his father wrote them. And Pooh, Piglet, etc. were his stuffed animals before they belonged to the entire world.
So, in its way, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is the tale of a cannibalized childhood. While everyone else thought Christopher Robin must be “the happiest boy in the world,” he was anything but.
The movie begins with Milne’s (Domhnall Gleeson) return from World War I. He brings with him a severe case of PTSD. Uncorked champagne bottles or popped balloons rattle him so badly he can barely function.
He decides the best thing to do is move his family to the country, where, among the peace and quiet, he can hopefully resume his writing career. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is as about as happy about the move as Eva Gabor was in “Green Acres.” Luckily, her husband hires a devoted nanny, Nou (Kelly MacDonald), for Billy Moon (Will Tilston), as this parents call him, and Daphne can go back to frittering away her time as a London socialite.
When Nou’s sick mum needs her and Daphne is still cavorting in the city, father and son find themselves on their own. Almost strangers, they nonetheless form a loving bond built around shared tales of Christopher Robin and his friends’ adventures in the 100 Aker Wood. Write a book for me, the little boy implores.
Milne does. The Pooh books and verse collections like “Now We Are Six” become mega-hits. His parents drink up the acclaim — and the considerable money — but Billy Moon doesn’t enjoy the spotlight. He doesn’t want the buckets of fan mail or the delighted fans who mob him at every turn. And he’s crushed when he realizes a seemingly thoughtful birthday call from his dad is actually a P.R. stunt for a radio program.
Daddy, it turns out, hasn’t written a book for his boy. He’s written one about him and, in doing so, has torn his childhood to pieces.
Director Simon Curtis (“My Weekend with Marilyn”) certainly knows his Pooh. It’s fascinating to find out how the beloved bear got his name. “Winnie” comes from Winnipeg, aka Winnie, a black bear that somehow landed up in the London Zoo (at one point, the boy is forced to take a picture with the animal; don’t move, he’s told, and everything will be fine).
The derivation of Pooh is more fantastical. On one of their woodland walks, the pair encounters a swan. Milne decides to call it Pooh. Why Pooh, the child wonders. “So if he ignores you, you can always pretend we were just saying, ‘pooh’.”
The picture looks invitingly twee (just as it should) with sun-dappled forest paths and adorable English children. There’s simply something lulling about this kind of ode-to-England piece that gets it right. And “Goodbye Christopher Robin” certainly does that.
What Curtis can’t get a handle on is what sort of story he’s trying to tell. At heart, it’s a sad, almost sour tale of a wrecked childhood. But he hasn’t figured out how to convey that. We see Billy Moon becoming overwhelmed by this unwanted celebrity, but we don’t see him coping with it — even as an adolescent, when he could possibly do something (He’s off to boarding school, where he’s ragged mercilessly, and then World War II).
Gleeson and Robbie give their roles a good go, but their characters don’t seem completely thought through. One moment, Daphne is a caring mom; the next she’s a careless flapper. And there needs to be something more happening with Milne as it slowly dawns on him that he’s traded his son’s happiness for a mess of pottage, i.e., fame and fortune (As the movie tells us, the adult Christopher R. Milne refused to take a penny of the considerable royalties.)
Little Tilston is winsome, but he’s not much of an actor (check out Freddie Highmore in “Finding Neverland”). Also, while he’s Christopher-Robin-cute, right down to his girlish bowl cut, he also, disconcertingly, somewhat resembles Geena Davis (it’s the dimples, maybe).
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” isn’t offensive. Nor is it stupid. Or especially boring. Still, you feel this little boy and his Silly Old Bear deserved something better.