Mark Reviews Movies

Goodbye Christopher Robin


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Simon Curtis

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Stephen Campbell Moore, Alex Lawther

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 10/13/17 (limited); 10/20/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 19, 2017

For those who enjoy having their pleasant childhood memories smashed, here's Goodbye Christopher Robin, a dispiriting account of how some of the most beloved children's stories came to be. The truth is important, as depressing as it may be, so there's nothing inherently wrong with the movie's attempt to lift the veil on the creation and results of the cultural phenomenon that A.A. Milne conceived with Winnie-the-Pooh, his animal friends, and the young boy who accompanied them on their adventures. Yes, it would be nice to keep some of our childish wonder kept intact, but if a movie is going to destroy it, we would hope such a movie would have more to say than this one.

The story follows Milne, played by Domhnall Gleeson and called Alan by those who know him, after returning from the trenches of the Great War. Suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, he has difficulty readjusting to life in London. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is a socialite with little concern for anything that doesn't help her place in society.

They are pretty selfish people, and it's into this relationship that they bring a child. The birth was difficult, leaving Daphne a shell of her former self. Unable to care for a baby on his own, Alan hires Olive (Kelly Macdonald), a nanny who wants to stay in the city to be near her ailing mother. With the trouble of the whole childrearing thing out of the way, Alan and Daphne go about their lives as if nothing has happened—attending balls, going on vacations abroad, and celebrating the opening nights of Alan's plays.

In a fairly manipulative move (The extent of which doesn't become clear until the story's finale), Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan's screenplay opens with a brief scene of the couple in the story's future, receiving a telegraph that points to some tragic news. It's an easy and ultimately false way to put the two in a sympathetic light, since little about them is particularly sympathetic once the story proper begins.

Back in the past, the trauma of the war becomes too much for Alan, amidst the hustle and bustle of life in London, so he buys a house in and moves his family to the country. The change of pace and scenery helps Alan realize that there's more to life than his work, which puts him at odds with Daphne, who worries that her isolation from the London society scene won't be helped by her husband's inability to make money from his writing. All the while, young Christopher Robin (played mostly by Will Tilston as a young boy) is raised knowing that Alan (whom he calls by his father's nickname "Blue Eyes") and Daphne are his parents, while becoming more and more attached to Olive.

The fictional Christopher Robin and his animal friends are inspired by Alan seeing his son playing with stuffed animals—the scenes of which Alan's friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) illustrates for a series of poems and books with the fictional boy at the center. The tales become an overnight success, and whatever connection Alan may have had to real Christopher is overshadowed by the fame the boy's fictional counterpart has brought to the writer.

The story here basically is one of child exploitation, with the unaware kid doing radio interviews (one, rather despicably, under the guise of Alan calling to wish his son a happy birthday) and public appearances (including a photo shoot with a real bear at a zoo), and abandonment. It's a dark, distressing tale, although one is left wondering if director Simon Curtis is fully aware of how disturbing this story actually is. There's an almost distancing sheen to the scenes of father and son becoming closer in the woods, as if there really is some wonder to Alan's connection to his son's imagination. Gleeson certainly doesn't play the role that way: He's almost always at a physical distance and always at an emotional one from the boy. The movie seems unwilling to see Alan for the man he is.

Instead, that fake sheen continues with the scenes of Christopher's unwanted fame, although those scenes often are literally darker through the lens of cinematographer Ben Smithard. The boy is suffering. His parents are too self-involved to notice until it's far too late. For some reason, we're almost asked to see some justification in this state of affairs, because of the artistic result of this pain and because, while it does come much later, at least Alan learns a lesson from the ordeal through which he put his son.

There's a weird separation between the truth of this scenario and the desire to keep some of our pleasant memories intact (The coda spends as much time discussing Winnie-the-Pooh's cultural impact as it does detailing the lives of the real people). We might not have wanted the reality of the story behind these stories, but if Goodbye Christopher Robin is going to tell it anyway, the movie might as well have done so with some honesty—as harsh as it would be.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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