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The Unexpected Story of Christopher Robin

A. A. Milne wrote the first Winnie-the-Pooh book in 1926. In 2017, that silly old bear is still a household name. He’s one of the most enduring and timeless childrens’ characters and for good reason. He, his friends, and his world are a perfect capsule of child-like innocence, happiness, and imagination.
Goodbye Christopher Robin, directed by Simon Curtis, is not really the story about the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh; it’s about the relationship between a father and son that was defined for good or bad by the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh. And it was this very thing, particularly the bad, that I wasn’t expecting out of a story seemingly as wholesome as this.
A.A.Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is trying to replenish his career as a writer after fighting in the First World War, but still experiences PTSD. To curb this, he uproots his family, moving them to the Sussex countryside. After a debilitating writers block, Milne is inspired by playing with his son Christopher Robin, nicknamed “Billy” (Will Tilston), and begins to write stories and poems about him and his toys. However once Winnie-the-Pooh becomes a sensation, it quickly takes its toll on young Billy, something neither he nor his father quite know how to handle.
Essentially what Christopher Robin was, was an early child star, and I like that the movie took this direction with the story, as it’s a subject not often seen in film. Not only was Christopher Robin the subject of so much immediate fame so fast, but he had virtually no say in it. And this film really emphasizes that, and does so well. It highlights the exploitation factor of what Billy has to go through, and what Milne unknowingly encourages. Concerning Milne himself, the trauma left on him by the war is tangible and we’re shown how his relationship with his son helped him overcome it. It’s not lost that the film is intentionally portraying the circumstances that led to Winnie-the-Pooh as having oppositional effects on Milne and his son -restoring the happiness of one at the expense of the other. Despite this, the movie’s not cynical, and maintains Winnie-the-Pooh’s cultural significance. It’s still a loving tribute to the wonder of the Milnes’ stories and characters.
Domhnall Gleeson continues to impress, playing Milne’s reserved detachment yet creative playfulness believably and with heart. He acts out the effects of shell shock superbly, as well as the timid nature Milne sometimes exhibits with other people including his own wife. He’s a very English character too, so Gleeson falls back on some of the charm he displayed in About Time. It also helps that he looks and carries himself like the real-life author. Margot Robbie plays his wife, easily the least likeable character, being the face of Billy’s exploitation. She’s an absentee mother, impatient, and ungrateful, and Robbie has a good time playing her. Billy’s surrogate mother is his nanny Olive, played lovingly by Kelly Macdonald. And we see quite a bit of their relationship as she too becomes uncomfortable with the boy’s unwanted attention. It makes for a good subplot. Stephen Campbell Moore plays E.H. Shepherd, Milne’s illustrator and fellow suffering veteran. But as for young Will Tilston, he’s not great. He certainly has his moments, particularly when overwhelmed by the public, and he does feel genuinely elated when he’s having fun; but its mostly his line delivery that’s never entirely convincing.
And despite some of the movie’s serious themes, it does suffer from being overly whimsical in a number of places. To be fair, a certain degree of whimsy is needed, this is a story directly connected to Winnie-the-Pooh after all. But there are moments it gets way too silly. Like a slow-motion sequence of Billy playing with his bear or an unexpected visit to the Milnes late in the film, and some lines that are much too sentimental. This is also problematic in that it ties into the liberties being taken, particularly near the end. The movie gives the story a happier ending than real-life did. And throughout, it’s pretty obvious which scenes have no basis in reality. There are also a few clumsy pacing issues with how suddenly a new development or time shift is sprung; excepting a transition early on where Milne walks from the muddy trenches into a clean banquet hall.
These issues do get in the way of what’s otherwise a very interesting story. But I still have to applaud it for its direction, and its boldness to unveil a slightly dark layer behind one of the lightest childrens’ creations in the whole of literature -without having to take away from that creation itself. It leaves you wiser to the sadness of the artists’ story (both father and son), but gives you instances like the elder Milne envisioning a snowy wood or walking hand-in-hand with his son in parallel to that famous illustration, that reinforce why the art has lasted and why Winnie-the-Pooh will continue to live on for generations to come. 

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